Martin O'Neill threw in a kid from the Academy but learnt a lot about his older Aston Villa understudies. They weren't good enough. The striker Nathan Delfouneso, 17 and Birmingham-born, can be excused. He scored with aplomb in a first full appearance of rich promise but was surrounded by a performance of alarming ineffectiveness against opponents who, although champions of their country, Slovakia, are hardly Europe's finest.
In losing, and much to O'Neill's evident frustration, Villa surrendered their unbeaten record in this competition this season but still progressed, stumbled rather, into the last 32 of the Uefa Cup with Slavia Prague's failure to beat Hamburg.
As Villa trooped off at the end, having wasted a host of second-half opportunities against a team reduced to 10 men by Vladimir Leitner's dismissal, Zilina celebrated deliriously in the centre circle as if they had won the trophy. O'Neill brushed aside the display in a manner that probably had more to do with his defiance than anything else. "We had six points already that's why I changed the team so much," he said, pledging he would do the same again. "It's our idea of rotation," he said and, with it, Villa went into a tailspin.
"Disjointed" was the manager's verdict after he stripped the first team – only leaving in three regulars – and immediately his side were exposed. Two goals in just over two minutes in the first-half, both on rapid counter-attacks, saw the Slovaks seize the advantage.
The first owed much to an error by Zat Knight as he misjudged a header, appearing to duck under the ball, and allowing an inswinging cross from Leitner to bounce in front of Brad Guzan, gather pace off the wet turf and fly into the net. The goalkeeper, who had a torrid evening, was soon undone again as Peter Pekarik cut the ball back for Peter Styvar to steer gleefully beyond the American.
Villa needed something. And got it. Nigel Reo-Coker's ball forward was chested into Delfouneso's path by Marlon Harewood and the debutant confidently struck an eye-catching, first-time left-foot volley, from the area's edge, which beat the goalkeeper Dusan Pernis."He played brilliantly for us, what a debut that was," O'Neill said. "He's got great ability. I don't want to put pressure on him immediately by saying he's ready for the Premier League but he's knocking on the door."
There were not too many others doing that last night. Guzan, Knight, Carlos Cuellar, Harewood and – especially – the ineffective central midfielders Moustapha Salifou and Isaiah Osbourne were disappointments, while Ashley Young, Villa's main hope, had to run himself into the ground to try to restore parity. That, surely, was not O'Neill's aim.
"We put a ferocious effort in the second half," he said and, with the big guns coming on, they did. Crosses rained in but chances were discarded.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Reo-Coker, Cuellar, Knight, L Young; Gardner, Osbourne (Milner, 65), Salifou (Barry, 68), A Young; Delfouneso (Agbonlahor, 76), Harewood. Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Laursen, Petrov, Clark.
MSK Zilina (4-2-3-1): Pernis; Sourek, Piacek, Vomacka, Leitner; Pecalka, Strba; Pekarik, Styvar (Rilke, 86), Jez (Tesak, 90); Adauto (Vladavic, 71). Substitutes not used: Seman (gk), Karoglan, Belak, Poliacek.
Referee: E Berntsen (Norway).