Aston Villa came from behind to make it three wins out of four in the UEFA Europa Conference League, beating AZ Alkmaar by two goals to one at Villa Park on Thursday evening. The visitors put up a good fight and responded brilliantly to their 4-1 defeat in the reverse tie but couldn't sustain the pressure from Unai Emery's Villans. Headed on by two glancing nods, the men in claret and blue fought back first through Diego Carlos and second through Ollie Watkins to seal a vital three points in Group E.
Following on from a beautifully observed minute's applause to pay respect to the late and great Villa record appearance maker, Charlie Aitken, the Villans thought they'd taken an incredibly early lead but it was chalked out by VAR. The ball was swung into the box by Leon Bailey and Clement Lenglet connected brilliantly with his head to find the net, but an offside was found in the build-up. Despite the goal being ruled out, the initial celebrations led perfectly to a stunning raising of phone torches around Villa Park to further honour Aitken's memory.
AZ gave the hosts a double wake-up call in the 11th and 15th minutes as top scorer Vangelis Pavlidis went close to scoring an opener on two occasions. The first went merely inches wide as Pavlidis struck audaciously from around 40 yards with Emiliano Martinez off his line. The striker then met a Dani de Wit cross in the six-yard box but got his attempt all wrong, sending the ball well wide. Villa reasserted their threat a few minutes later as Youri Tielemans pulled the trigger from range but Alkmaar goalkeeper Mathew Ryan dived across to make the save.
Approaching half time, much of the play was in the AZ defensive third, with Moussa Diaby and Leon Bailey taking on defenders in a bid to find a breakthrough. Pascal Jansen's side, sitting in deep, operated well to form a low block and broke free on the counter-attack occasionally. Pavlidis found the net in the 42nd minute but suffered the same fate as Lenglet – a shame for the visitors as the build-up play, made up of sharp and first-time passes, was superb. Pavlidis then had yet another opportunity in the next phase of play as he struck fiercely and stung the gloves of Martinez.
Villa started the second period as the brighter of the two teams but it was the visitors who broke the deadlock, with Pavlidis finally scoring to make up for his many missed chances. Running onto a Riechedly Bazoer through ball, Pavlidis evaded the offside trap before dinking it over Martinez for 1-0. Three corners of Villa Park were silenced; the away support bounced – quite literally – in jubilation. AZ took great confidence from their goal and nearly scored again through right-back Yukinari Sugawara, but Martinez dived across quickly to deny the Japanese.
Emery looked on in disbelief as Boubacar Kamara missed a glorious chance in the 60th minute but it wasn't to matter as the men in claret and blue netted an equaliser from the resultant corner. Crossed in by the left foot of Bailey, the ball lofted in the air and was met expertly by Carlos. The Brazilian, scoring his first-ever Villa goal, held off three defenders and nodded the ball into the far side netting, making it look effortless.
Substitutions followed the goal and it wasn't long until the Villans had another to complete a fine comeback at Villa Park. Douglas Luiz, off the bench to replace Tielemans, picked up the pace of the game immediately and dinked in a cross centrally to find Watkins. The England international, who had been fairly quiet beforehand, met it superbly as he headed it confidently into the bottom left-hand corner. AZ pushed for an equaliser into added time but were unable to break a resilient Villa back line.
Here are our player ratings for Emery's side.