Aris Thessaloniki shock Europa League champions in opening group game

Greek side Aris Thessaloniki scored a solitary goal to overcome 2009 Europa League champions Atletico Madrid in a dour game.


Winger Javito scored a great volley in a game that had few chances, with Atletico looking to protect their players with a key game at the weekend, while Aris were set up very defensively.
Atletico have had a splendid start to the season, winning the first two games of the new LA Liga season, sending them to the top of the league, whilst also beating Rafa Benitez’ Inter Milan in the Super Cup. Aris have won one of their two games so far, placing them in mid-table int the Greek Super League.
With Atletico facing Barcelona at the weekend manager Quique Sanchez Flores chose not to risk Sergio Aguero, who suffered a sprained ankle against Atletico Bilbao recently. Aris, who had already played four European games this season prior to the Atletico encounter, chose to leave out American prodigy Freddy Adu. The former-DC United midfielder has failed to live up to the high expectations that were bestowed upon him at the tender age of fourteen.
The game had a tentative start, with neither side looking particulary threatening going forward. Diego Forlan, who broke Liverpool and Fulham hearts last season as Los Colchoneros went on to win the Europa Legaue last season, skewed a shot wide after twenty minutes. The Uruguyan, who has scored three gaols in two games already this season, was forced to play up front on his own without the help of Aguero. Tiago played just behind the former-Manchester United forward, but the Portuguese midfielder failed to support Forlan often enough.
Aris did have the ball in the back of the net after the half-hour mark when fromer-LA Galaxy striker Carlos Ruiz fired in from outside the box, but the referee rightly brought play back as the Guatemalan international brought the ball down with his arm.
Atletico had little force up front, with Forlan struggling to bully the determined Aris defence. Wingers Simao and Fran Merida, formerly of Arsenal, were repeatedly frustrated as their crosses into the box were either met by the Aris back-line or goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis.
Aris manager, Hector Cuper, has vast European experience, managing sides such as Valencia, Inter Milan and Parma, whilst also managing the Georgian national team between 2008 and 2009. The eventless first half was down to the tough-tackling of Aris’ sturdy defensive play, coupled with Atletico’s failure to take advantage of the sheer quality chasm the Spanish side had over their Greek opponents.
The poor state of the pitch, as well as the hostile atmosphere, may have also had an effect on Atletico, who were forced to shoot from distance, with Antonio Lopez and Forlan striking tame efforts towards Sifakis’ goal in what was a frustrating evening for Atletico.
The Aris crowd, though, were sent into a daze when Spanish winger Javito, who started his career at Barcelona, volleyed a cracking shot into the bottom corner from twenty yards. Aris had the shock lead and Atletico responded immediately, bringing ex-Arsenal forward Jose Antonio Reyes on to aid Forlan in his forward pursuits.
It was Aris, though, who went closest to scoring the next goal. After a mistake from goalkeeper David de Gea, Aris forward Ruiz set-up teammate Koke, who fired a shot against the post. The ball fell to Ruiz inside the area who was only thrwarted by a brilliant block by Alvaro Dominguez.
Atletico began to push for the equaliser as the game wore on and, with just over ten minutes left, two chances came almost at once. Subsitute Diego Costa couldn’t quite turn in the rebound after Sifakis struggled to clear and, soon after, Costa should have scored after Forlan’s cross found the striker unmarked, six yards out from goal. His header, though, went wide of the mark. Nevertheless, Aris showed that they were not going to sit back and defend as they went up the other end and forced ‘keeper de Gea into a fine save from a Javito close-range effort.
Aris deserved this historic victory, sending the Greek side second in group B, as Bayer Leverkusen hammered Rosenborg 4-0.

Villa brought back down to earth by Rapid performance

Aston Villa were dumped out of the Europa League after a disappointing performance in the final play-off against Rapid Vienna.

Gabriel Agbonlahor scored on his return to the side within twenty minutes but Vienna striker Atdhe Nuhiu headed home after half-time to level the scores, both on the night and on aggregate.
Stiliyan Petrov wasted a great opportunity to regain control for Villa when the midfielder missed a penalty with half-an-hour to go, but a rare Emile Heskey goal put them back in front.
In an exciting finish, though, the Austrian side scored twice within three minutes to reach the Europa League.
After earning a draw in Austria last week, caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald chose to go with a more experienced side to that from the first leg. Stephen Ireland made his European debut for Villa after a disappointing Premier League debut against Newcastle at the weekend. Villa were outclassed and thumped 6-0 by the newly-promoted side and MacDonald clearly thought that he needed to field his best team against Austria’s most successful side.
Vienna’s star men from the first leg were Steffen Hofmann and Nuhiu and both players were present for the game at Villa Park with captain Hofmann playing behind the lone striker.
As Villa continue life without an appointed manager, after Martin O’Neil left just days before the start of the Premier League season, the Midlands club may find this season an unpredictable one as clubs around them in the League have strengthened well, whereas Villa, and owner Randy Lerner, have been very shrewd in their business this summer. This game, then, was hugely important to Aston Villa as they looked to put the weekend behind them and push on with their season.
Much like last week’s encounter, the game had a dreary, slow start. There were few chances in the first half, with a Collins header going wide with sixteen minutes on the clock. An Ashley Young free kick was then well saved after the English midfielder fired a shot towards goal from twenty-five yards and it was Young who created the first goal of the game.
On an awfully wet pitch Young breezed past Rapid left-back Markus Katzer and put in a low cross which was met by Agbonlahor, who finished off accordingly. The goal was the forward’s first strike of the season but his game was ended earlier than expected as the striker was forced to come off with an injury just before half-time. Starlet Marc Albrighton was brought on, meaning that Emile Heskey had to play up front on his own, with Young and the young substitute on the flanks.
Albrighton has shown great promise with recent performances in the first team for Villa and the English midfielder, who has been called up to Stuart Pearce’s England Under-21 side recently, started brightly with a great run, darting in-and-out and skipping past various players. The former Villa youth player, though, could only manage a poor shot at the end of a promising run.
Villa seemed to be in control of the match but, within six minutes of the second half, the nightmares of last season seemed to be resurrecting themselves. Rapid dumped Villa out of the same competition at the same time last year and so, when Nuhiu headed home from five yards, the Villa faithful feared the worst. Poor defending by Habib Beye, who was playing in an unusual left-back position, let Veli Kavlak in to hit a great cross into the area, which was met by the powerful Nuhiu.
Villa lacked real authority in midfield with Nigel Reo-Coker and Ireland failing to run the centre of the pitch. Ireland was the creative spark for Villa on occasions but Reo-Coker really should have scored on the hour mark after a Heskey cross had, eventually, fallen to the former West Ham midfielder. Reo-Coker couldn’t re-adjust his feet, though, and the ball rolled past the post.
Heskey has been something of a scapegoat in the last few seasons, with the main criticism being his lack of goals. The striker, who has retired from England duty after a poor World Cup, was brought down in the area by Mario Sonnleitner, giving Petrov the chance to score from the spot. The former Celtic midfielder hit a poor penalty which was then followed up by a shocking miss from Heskey, who hit the ball into the ground and over.
Heskey, though, made amends soon after. After a cross was cleared by the Rapid defence the ball fell to Beye who, from twenty-five yards, took a crack at goal. The shot seemed to be going wide but Heskey got his big frame in front of the ball and managed to bend his body to chest the ball into the net. The goal should have secured Villa’s progression into the Europa League, but the English side did not manage to settle after the celebrations.
A Rapid corner was flicked on Sonnleitner stooped down to header the ball towards goal. The shot was saved by Brad Guzan but somehow trickled into the net and the goal meant that, if the score remained as it was, Rapid would go through on away goals.
Vienna did not sit back, however, and two minutes later, with ten minutes left, substitute Rene Gartler finished off a swift, flowing move, tapping in from two yards.
Villa can have no complaints about their departure from the tournament; MacDonald put out a perfectly good side yet the players simply did not perform. The Villains will now have to concentrate on the Premier League and other cup competitions, while Lerner will be looking to install a new manager relatively soon.
Aston Villa 2 – 3 Rapid Vienna
Agbonlahor 21      Nuhiu 51
Heskey 76            Sonnleitner 78
                             Gartler 80

MacDonald’s boys earn away draw in Austria

Aston Villa managed a draw against Rapid Vienna in a Europa League play-off as they continued life without Martin O’Neil.

An early goal from youngster Barry Bannan had put Villa in front but Rapid striker Nuhiu equalised with a deft touch.
After O’Neil’s timely departure from Villa Park the Midlands side will have been happy with a 3-0 win over a woeful West Ham United at the weekend. Caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald chose to ring the changes for this match, with only three players retaining their place in the first eleven from the game against the Hammers. Left-back Eric Lichaj and central midfielder Jonathan Hogg made their debuts, while Nigel Reo-Coker, Marc Albrighton and Curtis Davies getting chances to show their worth. MacDonald was clearly looking towards the game at the weekend, Newcastle, when he picked this side as many key players, such as Ashley Young, John Carew and Luke Young were all left out.
Austria’s most successful side defeated Villa this time last season and fielded a strong side with manager Peter Pacult deciding to play two defensive midfielders and three attacking midfielders, who swapped and changed when supporting lone striker Hamdi Salihi.
Despite the lack of experience in the Villa side the Premier League club started well and the deadlock was broken within ten minutes. Albrighton, who has impressed with some good first team appearances recently, stormed down the wing after neat play by Emile Heskey, who started up front on his own. Albrighton breezed past Rapid left-back Markus Katzer, putting the Austrian on the floor. His ball across the box was met by Barry Bannan in the middle, who tapped in from two yards to score his first goal for Villa.
Villa were never really in control of the game and Vienna should have equalised just before the twenty minute mark. After a Thomas Hinum shot was deflected wide Steffen Hofmann put in a corner which landed on Nuhiu’s head perfectly. The striker, though, could head wide, with plenty of time and space available.
The forward, though, made up for his earlier miss with a goal. A Hofmann cross was dealt with poorly by the Villa defence and, after a slight flick from Salihi, the ball bounced into the net, past a hapless Brad Guzan in goal. Nuhiu was the man at the back post and he was given the goal for the slightest of touches. Habib Beye, Lichaj and Davies should have coped with the cross better.
Hofmann was proving to be a thorn in Aston Villa’s side and the Rapid captain volleyed wide after an attempted Davies clearance and, just before half time, the German had a free kick saved by Guzan. The sides went into half time level and neither side really deserved any sort of lead.
The second half was very tight, lacking any real chances. Villa did attempt to change the game by bringing on promising young player Nathan Delfouneso for goal scorer Bannan but the game had well-and-truly thinned out. A draw away in Austria is a good result for Villa and the away goal could prove important. If they play their first team at Villa Park, though, they should beat Vienna based on tonight’s performance.
Rapid Vienna 1 – 1 Aston Villa
Nuhiu 32                    Bannan 11