Lowly Varteks spoil Angel's big night

Aston Villa 2 Varteks 3
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The Independent Football

Aston Villa paid a high price for slapdash defending as the unheralded Croats of Varteks secured the best win in their history at Villa Park last night. Sasa Bjelanovic, reputedly being watched by Internazionale, scored his second goal of this Uefa Cup first round, first leg match with just four minutes remaining.

Juan Pablo Angel had twice restored parity as Villa, impoverished during the first half, accentuated the positive after the break. The Colombian, who has only one Premiership goal to his name since a club-record £9.5m move from Argentina, thus added to his brace in the Intertoto Cup final.

Not for the first time, however, Bjelanovic converted a pass by Devis Mukaj, restoring a lead Varteks deserved. Although Peter Schmeichel joined a late siege, even managing a shot, John Gregory's side trudged off knowing they must score twice in Varazdin next Thursday to have any chance of progressing.

Gregory acknowledged later that his decision to rest his captain, Paul Merson, as well as Lee Hendrie and Dion Dublin, would provoke criticism. "Gérard Houllier left out Michael Owen and they blamed him when we won at Liverpool," the Villa manager said. "I expect the same will happen to me. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and you find out more about your team in defeat than in victory."

The low turn-out of 27,132 was as mystifying as the fallibility of Villa's hitherto rock-like central-defensive duo of Olof Mellberg and Alpay Ozalan. All three home matches in the out-of-season Intertoto drew bigger crowds. Villa again applied a cut-price ticket deal, but this time the atmosphere was as cool as the autumnal evening. Varteks, from the industrial north of the former Yugoslav republic, brought all of a dozen fans, whose banners occupied more seats than they did.

Even a head injury in the opening five minutes to their goalkeeper, Danijel Madaric, failed to unsettle the technically gifted and well organised visitors. With forehead bandaged, he soon demonstrated unimpaired shot-stopping powers by blocking Darius Vassell's close-range effort.

Cleverly prompted by Miljenko Mumlek, Varteks struck first in the 44th minute. Mukaj, taking possession just inside Villa's half, advanced unchallenged before releasing Bjelanovic, who stroked the ball nonchalantly between Schmeichel's legs as he hurtled off his line.

Ten minutes after the interval, with Villa showing greater urgency, Madaric's eventful night took a fresh twist. A fine cross-field pass by George Boateng prompted a rare first-time cross by Kachloul. The ball broke to the right, whereupon Steve Stone's miscued shot was diverted in by Angel via the keeper's hands.

But Villa were again found wanting in the 65th minute. Zoran Kastel ran at them unchecked and, with Mellberg backing off and Mark Delaney sucked out of position, he slipped the ball to Veldin Karic. Sporting a classic 'mullet' hairstyle, Karic mustered a left-footed drive to match which fairly tore into the net.

Villa's second riposte, on 70 minutes, again stemmed from Kachloul, whose centre was met by a sharp downward header by Angel. Varteks, though, remained undaunted and unsated. Alpay stood off Bjelanovic as Mukaj's pass found him near the penalty spot, allowing him to steer the winner beyond the flat-footed Dane and send 12 of the crowd home happy.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Delaney, Mellberg, Alpay, Wright; Stone (Ginola, 66), Hadji, Boateng, Kachloul (Barry, 77); Angel, Vassell. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Balaban, Moore, Samuel, Enckelman (gk).

NK Varteks (3-4-1-2): Madaric; Kristic, Granic, Rezic; Sabolcki, Kastel, Mukaj, Hrman (Balajic, 90); Mumlek; Karic, Bjelanovic. Substitutes not used: Andricevic, Borovic, Sklepic, Safaric, Drobne, Rumbak (gk).

Referee: P Gomes Costa (Portugal).