Aston Villa competed in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup after successfully navigating the newly introduced qualifying stages.
Odense Boldklub (Denmark), Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar (Iceland), and PFC Litex Lovech (Bulgaria) were all dispatched by Martin O’Neill’s men in order to reach the group stages – another new feature of the competition.
Aston Villa were placed in Group F, alongside Hamburger (Germany), Ajax (Netherlands), MŠK Žilina (Slovakia), and Slavia Prague (Czech Republic). Each group consisted of five teams, with every club playing four fixtures – two at home, two away.
Group F, Match 1
Aston Villa 2-1 Ajax
23rd October 2008, Villa Park, 36,657
Aston Villa were returning to European competition for the first time since 2002. Ajax were the visitors on a memorable night in B6.
Inside ten minutes, a raucous crowd went wild as stand-in captain Martin Laursen opened the scoring. In front of the Holte End, the Dane rose above the visiting goalkeeper to head home a corner.
Jack Woodward – the club’s official commentator – immortalized the moment.
“Martin Laursen, YES! The skipper lights the claret and blue touchpaper”
However, the joy was cut short and in the 22’ minute, Ajax pulled a goal back. From a corner of their own, Thomas Vermaelen levelled proceedings.
Despite the setback, Villa remained on top in the game. With the interval looming, Ashley Young was released down the left-wing. Cutting the ball into the penalty box, Gareth Barry swept home what turned out to be the winning goal.
Group F, Match 2
Slavia Prague 0-1 Aston Villa
6th November 2008, Stadion Eden, 20,322
For some, an away trip to the Eden Stadium would’ve been a daunting task. The inhabitants of the new arena were unbeaten at home since its opening, and not many saw Villa as favourites.
Selecting a line-up consisting of seven changes from the weekends Premier League defeat, Villa defeated Prague courtesy of a Steve Sidwell strike bouncing in off the back of John Carew.
Ashely Young later hit a free-kick against the crossbar and Carew was denied a second by Prague goalkeeper Martin Vaniak.
In fact, it was a night to remember for both keepers. In the Villa net, Brad Guzan was making his second appearance for the club and made several impressive stops to deny the hosts.
The second half remained largely uneventful as Villa saw out an impressive victory on the road.
Group F, Match 3
Aston Villa 1-2 MSK Zilina
4th December 2008, Villa Park, 28,797
In the third match of the group phase, Villa hosted one of Slovakia’s most successful sides – MSK Zilina.
The visitors proved a handful for a Villa side only needing a point to confirm qualification to the next round.
Zilina scored first when Vladimir Leitner crossed into the penalty box, only for the ball to evade both his intended target and the Villa defenders to creep in at Guzan’s far post.
Not long after, MSK doubled their advantage. Playing the ball all the way from their defensive third into Villa’s penalty box, the game was in desperate measures before 20 minutes were through.
Just before the half-hour mark though, 17-year-old Nathan Delfouneso marked his full debut with a goal. 2-1 heading into the break – Villa had a lifeline.
Into the second half and the home side mounted further attacks. Ashley Young was impactful again when he burst past Leitner only to be hauled down. After an earlier booking for an identical offence, the Slovak international saw red.
Unfortunately, Villa didn’t make their numerical advantage count and tasted defeat for the first time in Europe, since August 2002.
Group F, Match 4
Hamburger SV 3-1 Aston Villa
17th December 2008, Hamburg Arena, 49,121
Little was riding on this game for the visitors. Villa had already qualified for the knockout stages on the back of beneficial results elsewhere in the group. For the Germans, the top spot was still to play for.
In truth, Villa played the game in a relaxed manner. With the festive fixture list mounting up and the team in the hunt for Champions League qualification, the manager rotated his XI.
Mladen Petric opened the scoring with a volley from the edge of the box in the 18’ minute.
On the 30’ minute mark, Ivica Olic scored his first of the game – heading in a cross that Villa should’ve defended far better.
Just before an hour had been played, it was Olic again who latched onto a downfield pass as the visiting players protested a foul on Craig Gardener at the other end. As the ball was looped over his head, Carlos Cuellar dragged Olic back to no avail and the striker found the net.
Scoring in another European defeat, Delfouneso notched late to reduce the deficit.
Regardless, Aston Villa were in the hat for the next round.
Round of 32, First Leg
Aston Villa 1-1 CSKA Moscow
18th February 2009, Villa Park, 38,038
In the games against the Russians, Martin O’Neill destroyed his Villa career. He’d led the team into the league’s top four until this point in mid-February, and Champions League qualification was looking definitive. However, one decision jeopardized his Claret and Blue tenure.
In the first leg, the manager opted to rest some of the more senior players in the hope they would be fresh to compete in the domestic season. A Villa team, still with a sprinkling of first-team regulars, came from behind to rescue a draw at Villa Park.
Vagner Love opened the scoring inside fifteen minutes, only for Carew to restore clarity with 20’ to play. In the visiting goal, Igor Akinfeev should’ve done better with the scuffed shot from the Norwegian.
Round of 32, Second Leg
CSKA Moscow 2-0 Aston Villa
26th February 2009, Luzhniki, 25,650
In a game which many Villa fans pinpoint as the catalyst for the clubs 2010’s decline, the manager made a harrowing misjudgement that cost the club dearly.
Eight of O’Niell’s regulars including Brad Friedel, Gareth Barry, Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor were waved goodbye to at Birmingham international.
Therefore, the team that took to the field in the reverse leg was largely inexperienced and lacking in match fitness. Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton were given full debuts whilst Delfouneso began the match as the solitary striker.
O’Neill was so fixated on a top-four finish that he discarded the club’s involvement in the UEFA Cup. Fans and players were left disheartened by this, and unsurprisingly it lead to a dismal turn of results in the league.
Of the 12 Premier League games that remained, Villa won just two. From their position of such prestige, the team slipped to sixth – placing them in the new Europa League format the following season.
Would O’Neill have been forgiven if the team secured Champions League football? Probably, but the fact of the matter is unforgiving.
Villa are yet to get as close to European glory since they were on that night in 2009. To throw away such an opportunity alienated the manager from his players and supporters. A damning tale of what could’ve been.
Next time, the final release of Escapades in the Continent – Villa in Europe looks at the Europa League play-off defeats – both of which felt somewhat familiar…