Sendings off ease Villa's European return

Gareth Barry scored on his 400th club appearance as Aston Villa came from behind to defeat ill-disciplined Litex Lovech 3-1 in their UEFA Cup first round first leg clash.





England midfielder Barry converted a 72nd-minute penalty to celebrate the landmark after the Bulgarian Cup holders were reduced to nine men at the Gradski Stadion.

Nigel Reo-Coker netted for the second time in as many games to haul Martin O'Neill's side level on the stroke of half-time after a gaffe from goalkeeper Uros Golubovic.

Arguably that mistake altered the shape of the contest and red cards for Cedric Cambon and Mihail Venkov in the second period further enhanced Villa's position in the tie.

Litex's Brazilian-influenced midfield dictated the opening period, however, and they might have added to Bulgaria international Ivelin Popov's curling free-kick which opened the scoring in the 10th minute.

It was a disastrous beginning to the midlands club's first foray into Europe for seven years as Reo-Coker was adjudged to have bundled over Sandrinho on the right-hand edge of the Aston Villa area.

Captain Popov stepped up and curled the free-kick around a posse of bodies and into the far corner, to leave Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel motionless.

The hosts totally bossed the opening exchanges, in fact, the dangerous Tom a constant menace from the right.

Tom, a Brazilian with Bulgarian citizenship, forced the first corner of the game as early as the third minute and although that came to nothing, Popov gave a warning of what was to come when he dragged a shot wide.

His next attempt was more accurate, however, and the Bulgarians were more at ease on a heavy surface, waterlogged yesterday afternoon, which cut up badly.

Villa began upping the level of their performance and it was their own Bulgarian, Stiliyan Petrov, who began to disrupt the home attacks with regularity.

From one such breakdown, Villa launched a counter from which they thought they had levelled.

Petrov put lone striker Gabriel Agbonlahor away down the left flank and when James Milner joined in, to cut back onto his right foot, he found Barry with his centre only for a contentious offside decision to nullify his glancing header as the ball nestled in the corner of the net.

Moments earlier Villa had tested the uncertainty of home goalkeeper Golubovic in the air when Barry headed into a dangerous area and Craig Gardner was snuffed out at the far post.

Yet Litex, currently second in their domestic league, still carried a serious threat of their own, proved when the lively Tom fed the overlapping Dudu on the left, whose first-time strike was well held by Friedel.

They might have been two goals ahead when Martin Laursen's stumble put Wilfred Niflore into a good position on the final minute of the half but he could only hit the side-netting after rounding Friedel.

Moments later the game swung as Reo-Coker capitalised on Golubovic's moment of madness to sidefoot in.

Litex's outfield players showed their disgust as they left the field at the interval.

But they reacted in a positive manner at the start of the second period with Niflore denied a penalty in the opening seconds when he went down under the challenge of Laursen.

Greek referee Christoforos Zografos waved away protests from the orange-shirted hosts, however.

Reo-Coker's advanced position meant he was receiving plenty of the ball and it was one of his bursts that resulted in the first booking of the contest.

Centre-back Cambon's heavy challenge was punished with a 63rd-minute card and five minutes later another one reduced Litex to 10 men.

Agbonlahor's pace exposed Cambon down Litex's right side and as the Villa forward pressed the accelerator, his opponent chose to haul him down in a rugby tackle.

After feigning injury on the ground for a couple of minutes, Cambon returned to his feet to see red.

The self-destruction of Litex was completed in the 70th minute when, after giving the ball away cheaply in their own half, they had a second player dismissed.

Milner seized on the chance to chip into the area and after Agbonlahor's flick-on cleared Golubovic's leap, full-back Venkov punched the ball off the line.

Barry's aim was true from 12 yards and Villa had completed their turnaround despite an unconvincing display.

Villa took further advantage of their numerical advantage when a flowing move put Petrov in on goal in injury time and although Golubovic saved his first attempt, he rolled in at the second attempt.

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