Aston Villa 1 Litex Lovech 1 (Villa win 4-2 on aggregate)
Marlon Harewood struck his first goal of the season as Aston Villa booked their place in the group stages of the UEFA Cup despite being held at home in the second leg by their Bulgarian opponents.
The former West Ham striker broke the deadlock after 27 minutes only for the visitors to level matters shortly after the break through a controversial penalty from Wilfred Niflore.
But Villa were always in command and are now guaranteed at least four more matches in the competition.
Villa boss Martin O’Neill had enough confidence in his squad to make six changes from what has become his established Barclays Premier league line-up, with Martin Laursen, Curtis Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker, Gareth Barry, John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor all rested.
Armed with a 3-1 lead from the first leg, it was an ideal scenario for the Villa chief ahead of Sunday’s league meeting with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
But the former Celtic manager was still able to bring in the likes of James Milner and Carlos Cuellar who had been signed for a combined £20m during the summer, while Stiliyan Petrov was selected as captain for the first time.
Given the scoreline from the first leg, the game struggled to attain any great intensity, with Villa always having the insurance from events in Bulgaria a fortnight ago to fall back on.
Ashley Young was given a free role just behind Harewood in a 4-4-1-1 formation as Villa made a positive start in the driving rain.
The lively Harewood had the first effort on target – a low shot on the turn which was comfortably collected by Litex goalkeeper Todor Todorov.
Then Harewood cut in from the left and saw a curling attempt deflected just wide by fellow forward Young after he had stuck out a leg.
Harewood was seeing plenty of the ball in the early stages and he found himself in space behind the Litex defence from Young’s pass but he took too long to steady himself and Alexandre Barthe was able to make the challenge.
Villa continued to look the more threatening and Moustapha Salifou flashed a 20-yard half-volley just wide after Cuellar had headed a corner from Nicky Shorey back into his path.
Litex captain Ivelin Popov became the first player to be yellow-carded after 21 minutes for a late challenge on Cuellar.
Young drilled a long-range effort over the bar before Harewood’s first goal of the campaign arrived.
Brad Friedel’s long clearance was flicked on by Young into the path of Harewood who needed no second invitation to show his pace and clinical finishing.
He shook off the challenge of Plamen Nikolov before hammering a fierce shot across Todorov and into the corner of the net to stretch Villa’s aggregate lead to 4-1.
Harewood came close to adding another goal shortly afterwards when he cut in from the left and fizzed a low attempt inches wide of Todorov’s goal.
Young was causing plenty of problems and the Litex defence backed off after he dribbled into the box but then spoilt his good work by sliding his eventual shot across the face of goal.
Litex coach Stanimir Stoilov made a half-time substitution, bringing on Momchil Tzvetanov for Plamen Nikolov.
And after 53 minutes the Bulgarians were back on level terms thanks to a controversial penalty.
Brazil-born midfielder Tom made a powerful run into the Villa box before going down after being challenged by Cuellar, but replays showed the former Rangers player had got a toe-end to the ball.
Up stepped Niflore to send Friedel the wrong way from the spot and level the match on the night.
Milner was having a quiet game by his standards although Todorov needed two attempts to block a shot from the England Under-21 international.
Wayne Routledge showed good skill to create a chance for himself following a Milner centre and his eventual shot was parried for a corner by Todorov.
Young almost clinched match victory for Villa when his shot thumped against the post following a Harewood flick-on but by then the hosts were home and dry.