In the Grimsby of Galicia, Villa guarded their net with the ferocity of Spanish fishermen. Not until the 86th minute when Michael Oakes beat aside a shot by Juan Sanchez, did Celta Vigo manage to turn pressure into the promise of an equaliser.
Yet the smart pesetas had surely been on a draw beforehand. Celta and Villa went into the tie with an aggregate of 19 unbeaten games this season, with both enjoying their best starts since the 1940s. It is a measure of how obdurate and organised Villa have become under John Gregory that they have still only suffered one away defeat in his eight months as manager.
By coincidence, it came against an Atletico Madrid side who were occupying third place in the Spanish league, just as Celta are now. The Villa manager had expressed the hope that his players would learn from the experience of that quarter-final, when they allowed the home team to dictate the tempo. They did precisely that, enjoying an equal share of first-half possession and creating a moment of menace as early as the third minute.
Stan Collymore slipped the ball through to Joachim in the inside-left channel, exposing the fragility of the home offside trap in the process. Richard Dutruel, Celta's French goalkeeper, had to sprint from his area to hack the ball clear, but it served as a useful dry run for the goal which brought Gregory dancing from the dug-out after 15 minutes.
Ugo Ehiogu initiated the move with a clearance which found Collymore just inside the Celta half. Despite being surrounded by opponents, the pounds 7m striker swivelled and burned off three defenders in a twisting run.
Joachim, shrugging off an attempt to hold back his supporting surge, received the benefit of any offside doubt from the referee's assistant. Advancing to the penalty spot, he unleashed a low drive which the keeper touched but could not keep out.
Celta's scouts had evidently noted Alan Wright's lack of height and often appeared fixated with lofting the ball in the direction of the imposing Valery Karpin on their right flank. But they did not threaten Oakes' security until the 28th minute, when Alexander Mostovoi's free-kick curled over the crossbar after Gareth Southgate had brought down Lubo Penev on the 18-yard line.
Villa were penned back for long periods yet seldom permitted Celta a clear sight of goal. In the 34th minute Mostovoi nutmegged Gareth Barry but was so carried away by the moment that he shot excitably over the top.
Playing on the break, Villa carved out another opening seven minutes before half-time. After a long diagonal pass by Collymore had again caught Celta square, Gary Charles suffered the same rush of blood as Mostovoi and volleyed wide.
Collymore marred a first-half display full of industry by being cautioned three minutes before the interval for tugging at the shirt of Mazinho. Mark Draper's caution for time-wasting only eight minutes into the second half was a reflection of Celta's renewed sense of urgency.
A miscued clearance by Southgate gave Mostovoi another opportunity, this time from inside the area, and although his aim was abject once more, Villa were being forced on to ever deeper defence. Nevertheless, an hour had passed before Celta finally got behind them, and even then Southgate slid the ball to safety after Michel had crossed from the byline.
Indeed, by the time the Celta coach, Victor Fernandez, brought on his second substitute and gambled on only two at the back, Oakes had still not had to field a shot worth the name.
The keeper's punch from a Mostovoi corner did not exactly inspire confidence, while he was a spectator when Tomas controlled the ball beautifully before sending his volley narrowly wide. But the defensive discipline and work- rate which has carried Gregory's side to the Premiership summit frustrated the best Celta could throw at them.
Celta Vigo (3-1-5-1): Dutruel; Caceres, Djorovic, Josema (Tomas, 62); Mazinho; Michel, Makelele, Mostovoi, Karpin (Cadete, 83), Revivo (Sanchez, h-t); Penev. Substitutes not used: Berges, Oscar Vales, Gudel, Pinto (gk).
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Charles, Scimeca, Draper, Hendrie, Wright; Joachim, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Grayson, Ferraresi, Vassell, Hughes, Rachel (gk)
Referee: O Sarvan (Turkey).Reuse content