Watkins and McGinn help Unai Emery have a grand night in win over Lille

Estimated read time 5 min read

By his own admission, Unai Emery is driven by the possibility of getting his hands on another trophy and Aston Villa’s first piece of silverware since 1996, when they won the League Cup.

Emery spelled out as much in his programme notes, detailing the seven semi-finals and five finals in which he has led teams, tasting ­victory on four occasions. Such is his obsession, he pointed out it is, in fact, eight finals if you are being pedantic and counting Super Cups.

Villa’s quest to win the Europa Conference League remains on after goals from Ollie Watkins and John McGinn earned victory in front of a pair of royals but Bafodé Diakité’s late header dampened their enthusiasm and gives Lille hope for the return leg.

Lille, fourth in Ligue 1, earlier had a Gabriel Gudmundsson strike ruled out by VAR and the Villa ­goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez made a series of saves to prevent the ­visitors from getting on the scoresheet sooner. Villa had to survive a nervy finale in which the substitute Yusuf ­Yazici went close.

At the final whistle Emery shook hands with Paulo Fonseca and marched down the touchline towards the tunnel, blinkers on, acutely aware this tie is delicately poised. Emery hardly played down the magnitude of this occasion, Villa’s first European quarter-final for 26 years, and no wonder given the personal milestone attached.

This was Emery’s 1,000th game as a manager and as McGinn led ­Villa’s players out of the tunnel, ­staring back at them in the Holte End was a giant flag bearing an image of Emery punching the air accompanied with the number.

Emery may be in esteemed ­company but is determined for his Villa side to mix it with the elite next season, the thought of ­securing a Champions League place at the ­forefront of his mind. That is not to say he had one eye on Sunday’s trip to Premier League leaders Arsenal and Emery was unhappy with the line of questioning that dared to suggest as much.

Villa were unchanged from the frustrating 3-3 draw against Brentford last time out, after which Watkins questioned whether Villa lack a big-team mentality. This was a chance to offer a reminder of their credentials and why they are favourites to win this competition.

Unsurprisingly, it was Watkins who earned Villa the lead with his 25th goal of the season in all competitions. Emery was unmoved but up in the directors’ box Villa ­supporter Prince William rose to his feet to applaud alongside Prince George, the latter wearing a claret-and-blue scarf.

Watkins saw a shot repelled by the Lille goalkeeper, Lucas Chevalier, but headed in unmarked at the back post from the subsequent corner. It was a move straight off the training ground, one dreamed up by their set-piece coach, Austin MacPhee, who also works with Scotland.

Unai Emery marked his 1,000th match as a manager with a victory.View image in fullscreen

Lille, it is fair to say, felt some dark arts were at play, with Morgan Rogers holding one Lille defender in Ismaily and Diego Carlos blocking another. Benjamin André, the Lille captain, asked questions of the Norwegian ­referee, Espen Eskas, and Fonseca made his feelings plain to the fourth official, Rohit Saggi.

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“I don’t understand what’s ­happening at the moment,” Fonseca said. “I don’t understand how it is possible to foul in the area. I understand it is difficult for the ­referee but with VAR it is incredible they miss these things. It is not good for football.

“They must look at what is going on. A lot of matches – and today as well – it is not football. It is ­blocking like in basketball, screening; they are clear fouls.”

Only Arsenal and Everton have ­registered more set-piece goals in the top flight this season and both of ­Villa’s goals stemmed from dead balls. Youri Tielemans would have found the net at the end of a slick free-kick routine had Tiago Santos not thrown his body at the ball to make a block but a minute later a choreographed corner paid dividends.

Douglas Luiz nudged the ball short to Leon Bailey, who superbly located the lurking McGinn on the edge of the area. McGinn’s sweeping left-foot shot tickled Gudmundsson’s shorts en route into the bottom corner.

Villa found themselves in a near-identical position to last weekend, when they raced into a two-goal lead early in the second half. It felt like deja vu when Gudmundsson side-footed in Santos’s cross six minutes after McGinn struck.

A hush fell among the Villa ­support but the goalscorer was eventually ruled offside by the video assistant referee. Villa were never assured defensively and while this time they did not crumble, Diakité flicked in a header from a cross by the ­former Manchester United midfielder Angel Gomes to ensure that this tie is very much alive.

Source: theguardian.com

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