The plot which Aston Villa lost last weekend looked, for long periods of their Europa League qualifying tie second leg last night against an unremarkable Rapid Vienna outfit, as if it might merely have been misplaced. A team again revamped by the caretaker manager, Kevin MacDonald, dominated the first half so completely that Gabriel Agbonlahgor's goal was scant reward.
Yet it was a different story after half-time, Atdhe Nuhiu equalising from Rapid's first effort on target and Stiliyan Petrov failing from the spot before a rare goal by Emile Heskey fired Villa's hopes of featuring in today's draw. Back roared Rapid, counter-attacking to expose the defensive frailties Newcastle had exploited. Late goals by Mario Sonnleitner and Rene Gartler enabled them to repeat their conquest of Martin O'Neill's Villa at the same stage a year ago. As one prescient Austrian banner proclaimed: "Your nightmare returns."
The estimable MacDonald, in whom Villa have trusted as the safe option, appeared wounded professionally and personally. He spoke of the "ecstasy" of taking the lead and the "despondency" of losing it. Was it in some ways more disappointing than the 6-0 trouncing on Tyneside? "It feels worse at the moment," he answered, "because Villa are out of Europe."
Pressed on the uncertainty over an appointment – which Petrov suggested was affecting the players in a post-match interview – the Scot said he expected nothing to change until after Sunday's visit by Everton.
MacDonald said: "It may have an influence but it is the media who have put me up as first choice. I have never been told I was first choice and expect nothing to change until after the game on Sunday. It is not about me but how the players and the football club react on Sunday." However, until Nuhiu repeated his feat of cancelling out Villa's goal in Vienna, it seemed only a question of how many MacDonald's experienced selection would score.
Agbonlahor, making his first appearance of the season after injury, highlighted the extent to which Villa have missed his pace and power before a tight calf forced him off before half-time.
By the midway stage in the first half Rapid appeared bemused by Ashley Young's free role and the tempo of Villa's game. James Collins headed wide from a corner, Stephen Ireland forced a diving parry from Hedl with a free-kick and Young curled a shot close to the far post. For the 22nd-minute opener, Young took Petrov's pass on the right before crossing to the near post, where Agbonlahor slid in ahead of Ragnvald Soma to score.
Ireland's ability to skip past a tackle, allied to his willingness to try the ambitious pass, endeared him to the fans on his home debut. The refugee from Manchester City might have doubled Villa's lead before half-time only for Andreas Dober to make a last-ditch sliding challenge.
But the second half was only seven minutes old when poor defending by Habib Beye allowed Veli Kavlak to gain possession. Beye compounded his error by turning his back as Kavlak feigned to cross, allowing him space for an inviting near-post delivery. Nuhiu's fine glancing header left Brad Guzan helpless.
Villa's frustration intensified when the Dutch referee refused them a penalty after Markus Katzer wrestled Young to the turf. Three minutes later, Sonnleitner's challenge on Heskey looked more legitimate but this time the official was persuaded. Hedl saved Petrov's weak penalty, Heskey somehow finding the roof of the net from the rebound.
The former England striker's next touch produced groans around the ground, but with 14 minutes remaining he put Villa ahead by chesting the ball past Hedel, his first goal for six months, when Beye volleyed the ball back into Rapid's area after a corner was cleared.
Joy quickly turned to despair when Sonnleitner turned in a corner with the aid of Guzan's fumble. Before Villa could recover their composure, one substitute, Christopher Trimmel, crossed for another, Gartler, to sidefoot home and it was goodnight Villa.
Aston Villa (4-3-1-2) Guzan; Cuellar, Collins, Davies, Beye; Reo-Coker (Delfouneso, 82), Petrov, Ireland; A Young; Heskey, Agbonlahor (Albrighton, 40). Substitutes not used Friedel (gk), Delfouneso, Lichaj, Bannan, Clark, Hogg.
Rapid Vienna (4-2-3-1) Hedl; Dober, Sonnleitner, Soma, Katzer; Heikkinen, Pehlivan (Gartler, 78); Kavlak, Hofmann (Patocka, 90), Saurer (Trimmel, 73); Nuhiu. Substitutes not used Payer (gk), Kulovits, Salihi, Hinum.
Referee E Braamhaar (Netherlands).