Aston Villa took a monumental step towards qualifying for the UEFA Europa Conference League knockout stage with a scintillating 4-1 win away at AZ Alkmaar on Thursday evening. Strong in the challenge and clinical on the counter, Unai Emery’s men succeeded away from home against a team that was, on paper at least, set to be the toughest opposition in Group E. AZ hadn’t lost in 30 European home matches but were stunned as Leon Bailey, Youri Tielemans, Ollie Watkins and John McGinn got on the scoresheet to earn Villa a vital three points.
It was a cagey start to the clash with the home support in fine voice at AFAS Stadion but Villa were able to brush off the noise and create two big opportunities just beyond the 10-minute mark. Bailey missed a huge chance as he sprinted through one-on-one but was too indecisive, allowing AZ to get back and clear. The Jamaican had another opening very shortly after, though, and this time he made it count by giving the Villans a well-deserved lead. Played over the top by Boubacar Kamara, the ball was at first miscontroled by Bailey but he had a second bite of the cherry to strike hard and low beyond former Brighton & Hove Albion goalkeeper Maty Ryan.
Just 10 minutes later, Emery’s side made it two to the good as John McGinn intercepted a misplaced Sven Mijnans pass and played an inch-perfect through ball to Tielemans. The Belgian midfielder nearly tumbled over but was able to regain his balance and take the ball into his stride before firing under Ryan for 2-0. The travelling claret and blue army were sent into raptures but the celebrations were nearly cut short as AZ were gifted a glorious chance. Kamara, dilly-dallying on the edge of his own area, was dispossessed by Mijnans and it was fed through to the usually clinical striker, Pavlidis. Much to Emery’s relief, the forward, who has 13 goals in just nine Eredivisie games this season, fluffed his lines, putting his effort just wide of the right top corner.
The second half began with AZ on the front foot but Villa were magnificent and devastatingly clinical on the counter to score a quickfire third and fourth, putting the game beyond doubt. For the first, Clement Lenglet pinged a wonderful long ball forward, Watkins chested it down to Tielemans and it was fizzed through to Bailey in behind. The winger chopped inside with great trickery to beat Alkmaar full-back David Møller Wolfe before curling an effort at goal. All goalkeeper Ryan could do was push the ball into Watkins’ path and the England international striker said thank you very much, slotting it into an open net. Just four minutes later, Kamara sent Bailey down the right and it was fired hard and low into the area, where captain John McGinn was waiting to poke the ball off the outside of his left boot and into the near post.
Villa were given a stern reminder the game wasn’t entirely over as AZ drew one back in the 65th minute. Central defender Bruno Martins Indi attempted an audacious 50-yard pass and it paid off as Ibrahim Sadiq was played onside by Matty Cash on the far side. The Alkmaar winger showed great composure as he dribbled onward and shot with true power and drive to beat Emiliano Martinez for 4-1. The deficit was nearly reduced further as the hosts gained confidence and forced a goal-saving block from Tielemans. AZ substitute Tiago Dantas found space in the box to have a go and it looked destined for the net but Tielemans threw himself in front of the ball to deflect it behind. The men in claret and blue shored up afterward, halting the hosts from having any more chances and holding on to top Group E. Here are our player ratings.