Emery, Villa exposed by new European specialist as 32-goal El Kaabi helps Olympiacos make history

Lewis Oldham
Emery Aston Villa
Unai Emery on the touchline.

Unai Emery was outsmarted as his knackered Aston Villa stars came up short against supposed inferior opponents to miss out on a European final…


Aston Villa headed into their Europa Conference League semi-final against Olympiacos as favourites to win the competition but they were on the brink of an unexpected exit before even heading to Greece for the return leg.

A week ago at Villa Park, Olympiacos boss Jose Luis Mendilibar masterminded an expert game plan as his players did a job on their supposedly superior rivals, who endured a rare off night in a season which has seen them take a significant step forward under Emery.

Without first-choice goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, Villa were troubled by a large portion of bad luck as a deflected goal and Douglas Luiz having ‘one of those games’ contributed to their 4-2 first-leg defeat against a clinical Olympiacos side who were boosted by inspired hat-trick hero Ayoub El Kaabi.

Fast forward to this evening, Villa required a near-perfect performance to overturn the two-goal deficit to reach their first European final since 1982.

From Villa’s perspective, the signs were promising in the opening stages as they looked far more assured in possession with the returning Martinez back in goal and Olympiacos’ supporters were starting to become nervy as their players dropped deeper and the authoritative visitors were gradually building pressure.

But the mood inside the Georgios Karaiskakis Football Stadium suddenly changed in the tenth minute and it all came thanks to a single long ball towards ex-Wolves star Daniel Podence on the left flank.

After barely having a touch early on, this single long pass by Olympiacos exposed Villa’s high line as their defenders were on their back foot with Podence advancing towards the penalty area.

A desperate interception by John McGinn got in the way of Podence’s initial pass but the Scotsman could not prevent the ball from immediately returning to the winger. He laid it off to overlapping left-back Quini, whose pass to the back post evaded a stretching Pau Torres and found an unmarked El Kaabi.

The in-form striker gleefully made the most of this charitable opening to convert past Martinez to score his fourth goal in two games against Villa. Perhaps it won’t be long until Premier League clubs come knocking for his services…?

It was another example of Olympiacos using quick interchanges to get in behind their opponents and their high defensive line after they looked like scoring almost every time they attempted a similar attack at Villa Park.

It was simple but very effective and they surely would not have believed their luck when a similar progression of play worked just as well in the return leg against Villa, who failed to learn from last week’s embarrassment and made it far too easy for their opponents’ game plan to pay off.

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This goal did not alter the momentum of the game too much as Villa continued to dominate possession and play some neat football in the build-up. But more importantly, they were left wanting when it came to the final pass and/or shot as goalkeeper Konstantinos Tzolakis was not tested anywhere near enough.

Villa knew they were up against it ahead of Thursday night’s game as there have only been three previous examples in UEFA’s three cup competitions of a team losing a first leg at home by two (or more) goals before going on to advance to the next round.

Mendilibar said pre-match that a “great weapon” up the sleeve of his side’s opponents is Emery “100 per cent believes” they can still knock Olympiacos out. But their defensive solidarity only added to Villa’s frustrations and any remaining nervous energy among his players would have evaporated when El Kaabi struck yet again with ten minutes to go to grab his fifth goal (and his 32nd of the season) to make it a 6-2 aggregate victory.

This season has been very demanding for Villa. This is made clear by Emery having to name a reduced bench for the return leg, which included two goalkeepers and an influx of academy products.

Given how rapid Villa’s growth has been under Emery, it’s easy to forget that it’s only around 18 months since Steven Gerrard was in the dugout at Villa Park.

Emery’s work at Villa has further asserted him as a modern managerial great and many expected his expertise in Europe would carry his blossoming side to a European trophy this season.

But the 52-year-old’s squad is stretched thin, with this latest loss meaning they have won just one game in six across all competitions.

Villa have consistently overachieved in the Premier League for most of this season so their end-of-season slump (and Tottenham Hotspur’s more severe woes) mean they are still set to finish fourth and qualify for next year’s Champions League.

This season’s run in Europe is a tease of what’s to come, but this Olympiacos tie was a step too far after they rode their luck in the previous round against Lille.

Few managers have a better track record in European competitions than Emery, but Mendilibar – who won the Europa League with Sevilla last season – has got one over his respected managerial counterpart to etch his name into Olympiacos folklore by guiding the Greek giants into their first-ever European final.

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