Villa play their part against Lille but might rue potentially season-defining results elsewhere

Dave Tickner
Aston Villa players celebrate Ollie Watkins' opening goal against Lille
Villa players celebrate Ollie Watkins' opening goal against Lille

A deeply curious evening this for Aston Villa.

A European quarter-final, their first this century, was occasion enough but their current league position and the tweaked Champions League qualification rules made it perhaps the biggest single night’s football in the club’s recent history.

It’s hard to get your head around the idea that while Villa were playing their own vitally important game, two other matches in a whole other competition they aren’t even in could have such huge repercussions for Villa’s chances of qualifying for yet another different competition next year.

The two ‘bonus’ spots in next year’s expanded Champions League always threw up the possibility of a night like this, but it’s still quite striking how starkly it’s played out.

Villa currently sit fifth in the Premier League and are involved in a nip-and-tuck fight with Spurs over fourth spot that could yet go either way. Those two teams are now, though, almost certain to finish fourth and fifth in one order or other because a) they are pretty good and more importantly b) Manchester United and everyone else below that are simply too silly and too far away now to challenge.

Villa will do well to finish fourth, though, given a tricky looking run-in and far heavier workload than Europe-less Spurs. Yet they would now have to do something really arse-witted to finish lower than fifth. So whether or not the Premier League snags one of those extra places could become truly season-defining for a club that hasn’t been in Europe’s premier competition since reaching the quarter-finals in ’83 after winning the thing in ’82.

It would be massive for Villa to be in it, and whether or not they get there now could be decided primarily by matches they can do nothing about. It’s a head scratcher, all right.

Of course, what Villa can do is what they’ve been doing all season: quietly adding points to England’s tally by steering their own course through the Europa Conference League as they look to emulate West Ham in winning the third-tier European competition and ending a trophy drought that extends an embarrassing distance into the past.

Villa got their win, but much like the Premier League’s week in general across the European competitions, it could and maybe should have been better.

At 2-0 up against Lille, with Ollie Watkins and John McGinn further burnishing already hugely impressive individual campaigns for Villa, they were looking good for the semi-finals. A late goal for the visitors adds significant peril to next week’s second leg, while results in Leverkusen and more startlingly Liverpool mean Villa might well need to wearily drag themselves back ahead of Spurs over the weeks ahead.

Villa really do find themselves spinning plates in a manner to which they are unaccustomed at this stage of the season. Especially with so many other plates spinning and falling around them which they don’t even control.

A comfier win here would have been enormously welcome given the task that awaits them on Sunday at Arsenal. Villa beat Arsenal deservedly earlier in the season, but both teams are different beasts now.

This was only Villa’s third win in their last eight, and two of those successes have come in this competition. Winning this trophy would be as huge as it was for West Ham, a similarly proud club that has waited a long time for success.

Achieving that remains something Villa retain full control over at least. What further success the season might bring has far more moving parts to it.