Villa win UEFA Cup group opener

Aston Villa 2 Ajax 1

Gareth Barry gave Aston Villa the ideal start to life in a bitterly tough group stage of this season’s UEFA Cup.

With tricky trips to Hamburg and Slavia Prague to come in Group F, boss Martin O’Neill came into the competition aware his side could ill afford to drop points at Villa Park.

Against Dutch giants Ajax, this was a convincing victory, with Barry’s winner coming on the stroke of half-time after Thomas Vermaelen had cancelled out home captain Martin Laursen’s early opener.

Laursen silenced Ajax’s travelling army, who had been singing from the moment the opening whistle sounded.

But from the first corner of the game in the eighth minute, Ashley Young delivered a piercing ball into the heart of the area.

Third-string goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, with Marco van Basten’s first choices both injured, never looked like he had a hope of claiming the ball.

With Vermeer flapping, it allowed Laursen to comfortably steal in front and from six yards nod into an empty net for his fourth goal of the season, but first for two months.

It was an ideal riposte from Villa as Ajax had passed the ball with consummate ease in the opening few minutes that suggested they had come for all three points.

Although Villa pressed and harried their illustrious opponents, 29-times winners of the Eredivisie and four-times European Cup winners, it was Ajax who managed to draw level in the 22nd minute.

Villa’s marking was poor as Urby Emanuelson whipped an incisive corner to the edge of the six-yard box where Vermaelen thundered a header into the roof of the net.

Villa failed to learn any lesson from the equaliser as another pacy, curling corner from Emanuelson soon after found the head of Luis Suarez who flicked the ball on to the far post.

With both captain Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Gabriel Garcia de la Torre lurking, it was the latter who got the touch, only to steer the ball narrowly wide.

Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel fumed at the players in front of him, and rightly so as the marking was shocking.

But Villa, with Gabriel Agbonlahor alone in attack in the absence of the ill John Carew, who was still well enough to watch the game from the stands, stuck firmly to their task.

Agbonlahor always found himself ably supported by Young down the left and James Milner to his right, with Barry naturally pressing forward from his central midfield role.

And it was two of those players who combined to restore Villa’s lead, and claim the win, with virtually the last kick of the opening half.

Scampering away down the left flank, Young managed to steer a cross into the area which centre-back Oleguer Presas Renom could only touch on to the lurking Barry.

With his trusty left foot, Barry connected with a first-time shot that curled its way into the bottom left-hand corner for his third goal this season, all of which have come in this competition.

The goal gave Villa the impetus in the second half to control the encounter.

Ajax were never given the time on the ball they craved, Villa denying them the opportunity to get their passing game going and so work their way into scoring areas.

Huntelaar, one of the most feared and sought-after strikers in Europe, was almost a casual observer such was the way the home side negated the visitors’ attacking threat.

Instead, it was Villa who should have added to their tally, only for Vermeer to redeem himself for his earlier indiscretion.

Diving low to his left, Vermeer initially blocked a drive struck with venom from just outside the area from Nicky Shorey.

The ball then looped up invitingly for Laursen to connect firmly with a header from 10 yards, but Vermeer had quickly clambered to his feet, just managing to haul it down on his goal-line.

Beyond that Villa dictated until the closing 15 minutes as first Huntelaar struck a free-kick that clipped the wall and narrowly cleared the crossbar.

Then Emanuelson forced a fine save, the first of the game, from Friedel, with the American at full stretch to his left in pushing away the low drive.

But that was as much as Ajax had to offer as the closing stages were not nearly as nervy as they might have been.

However, the game ended on a sour note for Villa and O’Neill as Agbonlahor was taken off on a stretcher following an injury-time collision with Vermeer.

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