Late equaliser leaves Villa deflated

Aston Villa 1 Helsingborgs 1
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After threatening to return to the Uefa Cup with a bang, Aston Villa's display deteriorated into something closer to a slow puncture at Villa Park last night. They took an early lead through Tommy Johnson, but toiled against a massed defence and were caught by a late Helsingborgs equaliser.

Villa thus face the grim prospect of emulating Manchester United and Blackburn by losing to Swedish opposition, which would be no way to mark Brian Little's first European tie as manager. Helsingborgs have a precious away goal though it was debatable whether the booing at the end was for their negative tactics or Villa's unimaginative attempts to break them down.

They suffered an early scare after Michael Oakes, again deputising for the injured Mark Bosnich, drilled a clearance into the body of Magnus Powell. The ball cannoned wide of goal, and Villa were close to a breakthrough themselves in the 11th minute. Mark Draper's rising drive from 30 yards rebounded off the crossbar with Sven Andersson a spectator.

The Helsingborgs goalkeeper's luck held for only four minutes. Alan Wright, on the left touchline, switched the ball infield to Draper. The midfielder's clipped pass into the penalty area found Andy Townsend rising like a target man to lay it back to Johnson, who buried his third goal of the season with a lusty swing of the left boot from 18 yards.

The Swedes, ably marshalled by the former Sheffield Wednesday defender Roland Nilsson, showed only limited attacking ambition. Like the giant flag their 50 or so followers had draped over the empty seats in the visitors' end, they preferred to smother Villa with a blanket defence.

Villa needed to make better use of the width of the pitch. Andersson, under pressure from Steve Staunton's dipping centre, punched straight to Draper early in the second half. The position was identical to the one from which Johnson had scored, the finish altogether more wayward.

The introduction of Martin Pringle, a striker who joins Benfica when Helsingborgs are out of Europe, did not signal a change in Swedish strategy. He merely took on the role of solitary front runner as it became clear that they would be content to take a one-goal deficit back to the compact confines of their own Olympia stadium

They surpassed and perhaps even surprised themselves. Having survived a free header which Ugo Ehiogu sent high into the Holte End, they broke out to punish Villa on the counter attack. Christer Fursth fed Ola Nilsson on the overlap, and his cut-back was driven past Oakes by Peter Wibran from 15 yards.

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton; Nelson, Draper, Townsend, Wright; Johnson; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: McGrath, Taylor, Joachim, Scimeca, Rachel (gk),

Helsingborgs (4-5-1): Andersson; R Nilsson, J Eriksson, Jacobsson, O Nilsson; Johnsson, Ljung, Jansson, Wibran, Fursth; Powell (Pringle, 52). Substitutes not used: Jonsson, Lantz, Sundstrom, Persson (gk).

Referee: L Loizou (Cyprus).