Europa Conference League – Villa Top Group & Progress To Last 16

Zrinjski 1-1 Aston Villa

In the picturesque surrounds of Bosnia, Villa completed a professional job by securing a point against minnows Zrinjski Mostar.

Unai Emery made a raft of changes, giving much-needed minutes to fringe and players returning from long layoffs. And so it was that Dendoncker, Duran, Moreno, and Ramsey made starts. There was also an unexpected debut for 20-year-old Filip Marschall between the sticks.

Against a serene backdrop, the traveling Villa support that hadn’t mustered tickets in the home stand, were bizarrely confined to a chicken wire cage. You can’t have everything.

After an unbelievable performance to beat Man City and an equally impressive win over Arsenal, we’d be truly spoiled of late.

With the personnel changes, fact Villa had qualified and Zrinjski had nothing riding on the match, perhaps it’s little surprise that the quality was lacking.

In truth, it was a difficult watch, often played at a pedestrian pace. It didn’t help that the pitch was cutting up and noticeably bobbly. First-world problems, indeed.

The first half came and went, but Villa took the initiative on the hour mark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the impact of substitute John McGinn was swift, with the in-form club captain curling a cross into the area.

Nicolò Zaniolo was well placed in the 6-yard box, controlling well before slotting a finish beyond the helpless keeper. It was a first goal for the loanee Italian international, whose Villa career appears decidedly uncertain.

Villa failed to capitalise from here and whilst Emery didn’t admit in his post-match, must be disappointed not to see out the game and the victory. It all became slow and like a training game once more as subs rolled on from both sides.

Still, there was no shame in the equaliser, that will no doubt serve as a lifelong anecdote for goalscorer Matija Malekinušić. The Croatian midfielder cut in from the left before firing an unstoppable bending strike beyond Marschall.

1-1 it finished.

After a concerning opening defeat to Legia Warsaw, Villa had to be disciplined in reaching the top of the group. The first fixture aside, few could argue that this hasn’t been a well-managed phase of the competition.

The reward is not just fewer fixtures, with group-topping sides arriving straight into the last 16 of the competition. It will be intriguing to see what lies ahead, with the draw taking place in late February for the competitions resumption in March 2024.

Teams That Are Through:

Group winners and into the last 16: Aston Villa, Club Bruges, Fenerbahce, Fiorentina, Lille, Maccabi Tel Aviv, PAOK, Viktoria Plzen.

Seeded in play-offs: Bodo/Glimt, Dinamo Zagreb, Eintracht Frankfurt, Ferencvaros, Gent, Legia Warsaw, Ludogorets, Slovan Bratislava.

Unseeded in play-offs: Ajax, Maccabi Haifa, Molde, Olympiacos, Real Betis, Servette, Sturm Graz, Union Saint-Gilloise.