Aston Villa vs Legia Warsaw. UEFA Europa Conference League Group E.
Match report as goals from Moussa Diaby and Alex Moreno moved Aston Villa to the top of Europa Conference League Group E with a 2-1 win over Legia Warsaw; Polish fans were not allowed into the stadium after violent clashes with police beforehand
Friday 1 December 2023 00:17, UK
Aston Villa progressed to the knockout stages of the Europa Conference League with a 2-1 win over Legia Warsaw in a game marred by crowd trouble before kick-off.
Legia supporters clashed with police beforehand, with at least three officers injured amid missiles being thrown. It resulted in no away fans being allowed inside Villa Park to see the Polish side beaten by goals from Moussa Diaby and Alex Moreno, the win maintaining their impeccable record in every home game this season in the Premier League and in Europe.
Diaby's early goal was cancelled out by Ernest Muci's excellent strike but Moreno's second-half volley, on his first appearance of the season following his return from injury, earned the three points that mean Villa are ensured of at least a place in the play-off round.
A two-goal win over Legia would have been enough to guarantee Unai Emery's side a route straight into the round of 16 on account of their superior head-to-head record - and they nearly achieved it when Leon Bailey lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper only to see it come back off the bar. Instead, they still need a point away to Bosnian side Zrinjski Mostar to be sure.
In front of the eerie sight of the empty away end, Villa took charge of the game almost immediately thanks to Diaby's early goal. Boubacar Kamara won the ball in midfield before Youri Tielemans fed Diaby down the right. The forward cut inside and found the far corner.
It was the ideal start in a game that Villa knew they needed to win by two goals to guarantee top spot in the group. Jhon Duran almost secured that second goal when he raced beyond the defence but could not beat goalkeeper Kacper Tobiasz at his near post.
Unfortunately for Villa, Kamara undid his good work for the opener soon after. Receiving the ball from Robin Olsen, he could only find Muci who arrowed the ball into the net. Stewards removed several people supporting Legia within the home areas in the aftermath.
Villa almost fell behind early in the second half when Gil Dias headed against the crossbar but the home side promptly went up the other end and almost restored their lead through Diaby. But Emery did not have to wait too long for his team to edge ahead again.
The man who put Villa back in front was Moreno, his first goal for the club on his first appearance of the season following his return from injury. A right-footed volley was an unlikely way to get it but his connection with Douglas Luiz's looping free-kick was sweet.
Bailey, on as a substitute, came closest to adding the third, beating the goalkeeper but not the crossbar, but Villa had to settle for the one-goal win that puts them in command of the group - albeit with top spot ahead of Legia not yet assured.
A point in Bosnia will be enough to secure that, which is significant because it would mean avoiding additional fixtures. Work to do on the road for Villa, then. But it is at home, in front of their own fans, and on this occasion no away ones, that they remain formidable.
Asked about the absence of his team's supporters inside the stadium, Legia Warsaw head coach Kosta Runjaic said: "It is a different topic, it is not my business."
He added: "I have been having a big focus in the tunnel to coach and to prepare the team. I think we represented Legia and Polish soccer in a good way [on Thursday]. All other things, outside the stadium, I do not want to comment.
"For sure, we have great fans, they support us, at home and away, they are always travelling, we can count on them. So far, since coming to Legia, I have had a good experience with our fans so for sure it would have been helpful.
"But I do not know the details of what happened so it is best that I do not speak too much about that. but unfortunately our fans were not in the stadium. I think the atmosphere would have been much better."
Villa were beaten by Legia Warsaw in the reverse fixture and Emery felt that this result reflected the progress that his side have made since then. "We wanted to show how we have improved after that match," he explained in his post-match press conference.
"I think we played well. We are feeling stronger. We wanted to finish first in group. It is not complete but with this victory I think we are close to it."
There was praise for the returning Moreno. "He is back, scoring and playing well." He added: "It is important to get players feeling in good rhythm to help us." There were also encouraging words for Jhon Duran. "If he continues in this way he can show us his potential."
Duran may be needed because Ollie Watkins was not in the squad and Emery confirmed the in-form striker has a knock. "He was not available today. Yesterday he felt something. We decided not to take a risk. Secondly because we wanted to get minutes with Jhon Duran."
Villa face Bournemouth in the Premier League on Sunday but Emery was not able to confirm Watkins would be available for that fixture. "I don't know now but we are going to test tomorrow and Saturday how he is," added Emery. "But hopefully yes."
Moreno has had to be patient in waiting for the right moment for his return, having been an unused substitute in each of Aston Villa's previous four games prior to his spectacular impact here. It was fitting that he scored the winner.
The nature of it was surprising - a right-footed volley. He did not even score a goal for Villa last season when he was establishing himself as the team's best option out on the left. Lucas Digne has deputised well but having a fit and in-form Moreno will help Unai Emery.
So too will goals from Diaby. The onus was on him in the absence of Watkins and the forward made an impact almost instantly with the opening goal at Villa Park. The Frenchman is having a fantastic season since signing from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer.
His pace is obvious but his touch in scoring his fourth goal of the season was superb too. Emery will want to see more of that. His only goals since scoring on his debut have come against Luton and Burnley. But Diaby is capable of being a scorer as well as a supplier.
Aston Villa visit Bournemouth in the Premier League on Sunday; kick-off 2pm. Unai Emery's side return to Europa Conference League action on Thursday December 14 away to Zrinjski Mostar; kick-off 5.45pm.