Aston Villa and they just keep going

Dave Woodhall watches Villa beat French side Lille.

Whatever Villa end up taking from this season it will have been earned. Even without the injuries that keep piling up, nothing’s been done the easy way. And even when the hard work seems to have been done, the team insist on making it more difficult for themselves.

Lille were the hardest opposition we could have had at this stage of the tournament and Unai Emery put out his strongest possible side for Thursday’s first leg. It was Emery’s 1,000th game as a manager and also Villa’s 100th European match. The team started off well enough to suggest that they would mark this double milestone with a comfortable win.

Ollie Watkins had already had a few chances, then from a corner John McGinn’s cross found him in space and in that situation the ball’s ending up in the back of the net. This was another landmark, his 25th goal of the season, which puts him in the modern greats category of Withe, Gray and Yorke. You can’t have a higher honour.

Villa continued to look impressive and started the second half in much the same manner. With 56 minutes gone Leon Bailey laid the ball off from another corner and McGinn doubled Villa’s lead. Just for once it looked as though it might be a straightforward job but this is the Villa and normal service was soon resumed. They’d had a good claim for a penalty turned down; at 3-0 the tie would have been as good as over, but again, that would have been too easy.

Lille started to get into the game and Emiliano Martinez, the most unpopular man in the away section, had to be on top form as Villa’s defence began to look stretched. The visitors had a goal disallowed after a lengthy VAR check even though there was a clear offside and troughout the game the officials seemed as objective and neutral where the British team were concerned as Eurovision Song Contest judges. Meanwhile, the substitutions Emery made had little effect, although they were forced by tiredness as much as by gamne management.

It looked as though Villa might get away with keeping a clean sheet but with six minutes to go some poor marking meant Lille got a goal back and in truth weren’t far away from a stoppage time equaliser. For the second time in a week Villa had let a two-goal lead slip. The best defence in the country has turned into one of the most error-prone, and this is the most obvious problem caused by that injury list. It might sound like excuses but Tyrone Mings is an enormous loss to the back four, as is Boubacar Kamara in front of them and while Matty Cash might not be the best right-back to ever wear claret and blue, putting Ezro Konsa into his place causes more than one problem.

The return leg will be difficult but Villa showed enough in the first hour of the game to be confident of getting through and adding at least another couple of games to what seems a never-ending season.