Aston Villa and the pleasant journey

Dave Woodhall watches TV as Villa beat Zrinjski Mostar.

Many years ago a trip to some Eastern backwater would have been one of the highlights of a European campaign. The place was different – after all, not even many Czechs have ever been to Ostrava -the beer was about tenpence (or £30 once you added the cost of the trip) and there was the sense of smug superiority that came from being one of a handful of supporters who’d travelled to some far-off land watching the Villa. That was a long time ago and now, with less hair and less money, if I took a few days away two weeks before Christmas to go travelling abroad, the locks would probably have been changed when I got home.

And so it was that I settled down to watch the final group game on TV, after enduring a West Midlands Railway journey only a bit less arduous than travelling to Bosnia (or is it Herzegovina? I don’t think anyone’s too sure). There’d been a bit of debate over who would be in the team but no great surprises when it was announced. Filip Marschall made his debut in goal, Alex Moreno and Jacob Ramsey returned while Nicolo Zaniolo and Jhon Duran were given the opportunity to show they can make a contribution during the rest of the season.

Villa began the game as though they wanted to make certain of topping the group as quickly as possible. Zaniolo took a wild swing at a chance where he should have done better and Moussa Diaby didn’t have to do much more than make a clean contact with the ball in front of an open goal but miscued. That was the story of the first half, with the Mostar Little Drummer Boys doing more work than anyone on either side.

Villa stepped up their game in the second, particularly after the arrival of John McGinn and Lucas Digne on 58 minutes. It didn’t take long for McGinn’s cross to find Zaniolo, who looked to have lost control with his first touch before regaining it to score with his second, although looking again he took the ball at an awkward height and did well to bring it down. That’s his first goal and perhaps he’ll now stop trying too hard and show what he’s capable of.

A few substitutions were made, including Tommi O’Reilly coming on for a ten minute debut and looking decent. Douglas Luiz had a goal disallowed from a corner, but with the score in Warsaw’s favour Villa seemed to be winding down well before the final whistle.

Mostar should have scored when Marchsall came charging out and hit the ball against substitute Calum Chambers but luckily the deflection fell badly for their forward to be able to do anything except balloon it over the bar. They did score with three minutes to go when a deflected shot gave Marschall no chance and gave their supporters the city’s biggest reason to celebrate since the Ottoman Empire. There were a nervous few minutes although nothing particularly worrying; both sides seemed happy with a draw that saw Villa topping the group and Mostar being able to claim that on recent form they’re better than Manchester City and Arsenal.

Stage one over, see you all in March.