Villa miss Martinez’s housery in Olympiacos thriller but Spurs misery is fine consolation

Lewis Oldham
Aston Villa vs Olympiacos
Aston Villa players protest after conceding a penalty.

Aston Villa are set to miss out on a European final, but their “first priority” is the Premier League so it’s still a decent night for Unai Emery.


Unai Emery set his stall out during his pre-Olympiacos press conference, insisting the Premier League is the “first priority” for Aston Villa this season.

In that regard, Thursday night went as good as Villa could have dreamed of as Ange Postecoglou’s temperamental Tottenham Hotspur side came unstuck in a 2-0 loss at Chelsea to leave Emery’s team with a clear run at the final remaining Champions League spot and a fourth-place finish in the Premier League.

Champions League football is now within touching distance for Villa, but their focus was elsewhere on Thursday evening as they had the small matter of a European semi-final to contend with.

The semi-final of the Europa Conference League is not quite the calibre of game on the continent sides of Villa’s yesteryear were accustomed to. Though as West Ham proved last season, this fledgling competition can provide starved supporters with some unforgettable nights en route to the long overdue lifting of European silverware.

With European Cup specialist Emery in charge and competing in a competition with opponents of lower quality than other tournaments, Aston Villa have long been earmarked as a favourite to win this season’s Europa Conference League.

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It’s just over 18 months since Steven Gerrard left Villa and they have been on a remarkable ride since their board pulled off a major coup to tempt Emery into leaving his cushty gig with Villarreal to return to the Premier League.

Clearly feeling he had unfinished business in the Premier League, Emery accepted this tempting opportunity with both hands. Any doubters he had after his ill-fated spell at Arsenal have gone missing as his reputation as an elite coach has been enhanced during Villa’s stunning rise.

Villa had to rely on heroics (and sh*thousery) from Emiliano Martinez in the previous round to edge past Ligue Un outfit Lille on penalties, but his antics in France meant he was suspended for his side’s home semi-final first leg against Olympiacos.

His replacement – Robin Olsen – was hailed as a “fantastic goalkeeper” by Villa defender Matty Cash in the build-up to Thursday night, but the hosts sorely missed their first-choice between the sticks as Olympiacos manager Jose Luis Mendilibar – who helped Sevilla win the Europa League last season before being sacked just eight games into this campaign – masterminded an expert game plan as his side successfully did a job on their opponents.

Villa have become a side renowned for taking risks in their own half, but they can do this as Martinez is supremely confident with the ball at his feet and his defence has been the best in the Premier League this season when it comes to catching opponents offside.

But against an uber-confident Olympiacos side, Villa had to deal with the unfamiliar feeling of being caught out themselves when trying to play for offside as Ayoub El Kaabi twice found himself in behind and clinically converted past Olsen with efforts which Martinez would have backed himself to keep out.

Olympiacos, who have scored at an average of over three goals per game since Mendilibar took over in February, were in dreamland after punishing a nervy Villa side in what turned out to be a rare off night for Emery’s men.

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This is the Greek side’s first-ever European semi-final but you would not think Olympiacos lacked experience on the grandest stage if you were purely going off their energetic performance at Villa Park, as they looked dangerous pretty much every time they latched on to their opponents’ lapses.

Villa – to their credit – showed great character to fight their way back into the match and the home supporters were in a jubilant mood heading into half-time as Ollie Watkins scored his 27th goal of the season to set up a similarly thrilling second 45 minutes after the non-stop opening half.

The home side kicked off where they left off once play resumed and a comeback victory almost felt inevitable after Moussa Diaby levelled the tie with a goal from a tight angle after 52 minutes.

But just as Villa Park was silenced by El Kaabi’s opener in the 16th-minute, the stadium went quiet again a few moments after Diaby’s leveller as Olympiacos were awarded a penalty as Douglas Luiz was adjudged to have handled the ball in the area. His team-mates protested but the Brazil international’s arm was raised, so it was a fair call.

El Kaabi was having the game of his life for Olympiacos so it is no surprise – especially with penalty expert Martinez off the field – that he calmly converted from the spot to complete his hat-trick and restore his side’s lead.

It was a game in which nothing went right for Aston Villa and Santiago Hezze’s goal from distance – which went in via a huge deflection – to make it 4-2 with 20 minutes to go added to the feeling that it wasn’t the host’s night.

To compound their misery further, Luiz was unable to convert as he uncharacteristically shot wide with his spot-kick after Villa were awarded a spot-kick of their own in the final ten minutes.

Five days after surrendering a lead in a draw against Chelsea, injury-affected Villa appear to be running out of steam and their clash against a free-spirited Olympiacos side came at an awful time.

Villa already have one foot out of the competition ahead of next week’s testing return leg – which would have been difficult enough with an aggregate lead – but context is key and it’s worth remembering the worrying position the club was in just 18 months ago.

They are still comfortably ahead of schedule under Emery with a Champions League return incoming. Their run in Europe has always been a bonus, and their performances in their “priority” competition have far exceeded expectations.

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