Aston Villa and another step

Villa beat Zrinjski Mostar in the Uefa Conference League. Dave Woodhall watches.

If you don’t count Hibs the other week this was Villa Park’s return to Europe proper and it all came right late on in the night. The signs were looking good for a memorable occasion, even if the opposition were a far cry from some of the names we’ve welcomed to Aston. Zrinjski Mostar is hardly the stuff of Great European Nights but they brought a good few, who had by all accounts enjoyed themselves Up Town in the afternoon then made a fair old noise during the game. There was a decent crowd as well, which shows what happens when you get the pricing better than last week. And the team was pretty much what you’d have expected – half a dozen changes, Emiliano Martinez in goal to give the defence a bit more confidence and potential gamechangers on the bench in case they were needed.

At kick-off time confidence was understandably high and it remained so throughout the first half. Villa weren’t particularly great but they didn’t need to be because Zrinjski, or Mostar if they prefer, had decided that they were going to defend in depth and only venture out of their own half if they really, really had to.

For all Villa’s possession they had few chances in the first half. The best was from Nicolo Zaniolo whose acrobatic bicycle kick was well saved. Zaniolo hasn’t hit top form yet annd at times he seems to be trying too hard but one day soon he’ll get his first goal and from then on there’ll be no stopping him. You can bet on it.

Unai Emery had clearly seen enough by half-time and brought on reinforcements in the shape of Matty Cash, Douglas Luiz and Ollie Watkins, whose England call-up shouldn’t have been a surprise but was, because he’s a Villa player and these things don’t happen to us.

The new arrivals had an instant impact, giving Villa more bodies in midfield and consequently a greater attacking threat. Watkins was denied a penalty early in the second half, then just afterward Diego Carlos should have done better from a short-range header. Zaniolo and Youri Tielemans both had chances but the Zrinjski defence was holding on and their keeper was having the sort of game that keepers in this situation dream of.

Bertrand Traore, as inconsistent as he is capable of magical moments, came on for the last ten minutes but it seemed as though Villa were headed for another midweek embarrassment. Then Matty Cash’s cross was met by John McGinn, with a finish that could prove priceless.

It was by no means a vintage Villa performance, although 27 shots and fifteen corners indicated that the win was well-deserved even if it was a bit late. One-nil against the weakest team in the group might not be much to boast about but Villa are still learning the art of playing two games a week and I can remember back in the mists of time politely applauding Helsingborg’s equaliser because there were more than two hours of the tie left and Villa were sure to get another goal. When the opposition’s sole intention is not to concede, even a one-goal win is worth celebrating.