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Aston Villa vs Lille. UEFA Europa Conference League Quarter-finals.

Villa ParkAttendance37,220.

Aston Villa 2

  • O Watkins (13th minute)
  • J McGinn (56th minute)

Lille 1

  • B Diakite (84th minute)

Aston Villa 2-1 Lille: Narrow first-leg lead in Europa Conference League quarter-final for Unai Emery’s side

Report as goals from Ollie Watkins and John McGinn put Aston Villa in charge of Europa Conference League quarter-final only for Bafode Diakite to pull one back for Lille late on. Tie is finely poised after first leg at Villa Park

Aston Villa's John McGinn celebrates scoring the second goal against Lille
Image: Aston Villa's John McGinn celebrates scoring the second goal against Lille

Aston Villa will take a narrow 2-1 lead back to Lille following the first leg of their Europa Conference League quarter-final at Villa Park.

Ollie Watkins headed Villa in front from John McGinn's corner early on and McGinn's deflected shot early in the second half doubled the advantage for Unai Emery's side on the occasion of his 1000th game in management.

But Lille, who squandered a number of good opportunities in the first half and saw Gabriel Gudmundsson's goal ruled out for offside following a VAR check in the second, finally had their reward late in the game through Bafode Diakite's header.

It made for muted celebrations at the final whistle, an awareness that this tie is in the balance. There is work to do in France.

Player ratings

Aston Villa: Martinez (8), Konsa (7), Diego Carlos (6), Pau Torres (6), Digne (6), Douglas Luiz (6), Tielemans (6), Rogers (7), McGinn (7), Bailey (6), Watkins (7).

Subs: Zaniolo (6), Moreno (6), Diaby (6), Iroegbunam (n/a), Duran (n/a).

Lille: Chevalier (6), Tiago Santos (7), Diakite (7), Yoro (6), Ismaily (6), Bentaleb (6), Andre (6), Zhegrova (6), Haraldsson (6), Gudmundsson (7), David (5).

Subs: Yazici (6), Cabella (7), Gomes (6), Alexsandro (n/a).

Player of the match: Emiliano Martinez.

How the game played out

Lille made a confident start but the character of the contest shifted when Leny Yoro went down following a nudge in the back from Watkins, looked expectantly at the referee and did not receive the decision. It invited the pressure that brought the opener.

That came following another tumble, Ismaily throwing himself to the ground unnecessarily as John McGinn's right-wing corner was curling towards the six-yard box. It left Watkins unmarked at the far post and able to nod into the net for the breakthrough goal.

Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring for Aston Villa against Lille
Image: Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring for Aston Villa against Lille

If that was supposed to settle nerves at Villa Park, it instead seemed to spur on Lille. Three times they carved Villa open before the half-time whistle and three times Emiliano Martinez was a match for the man running through on his goal. It was superb goalkeeping.

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Edon Zhegrova failed to find a way past him on the angle, Diakite should have done better after racing through from deep, and Jonathan David appeared tentative in the face of the World Cup-winning goalkeeper. None punished Villa's high-defensive line.

It proved costly because Villa started the second half much stronger and might have been awarded a penalty when Watkins went down following a clash of legs with Benjamin Andre inside the box. Emery did not have to wait long as his side were two up inside the hour.

Team news

  • There was no rotation for Unai Emery as he named the same side that drew 3-3 with Brentford at Villa Park at the weekend.
  • Two alterations from the Lille side that impressed against Marseille last weekend as Bafode Diakite and Gabriel Gudmundsson replace Alexsandro and Remy Cabella.

There were some groans when Douglas Luiz took the corner short and Leon Bailey slipped while sending the ball in but it rolled kindly for McGinn whose shot was deflected into the bottom corner. It provided some brief breathing space but Lille kept pushing.

There was a scare soon after when Gudmundsson found the net but his strike was ruled out following a tight VAR check. Martinez then had to save twice at the near post. Paulo Fonseca, Lille's Portuguese coach, appeared utterly bereft by that point.

But Diakite's expertly-placed near-post header from a left-wing corner, another example of Villa's vulnerability from set-pieces, changed the complexion. Lille have lost only once in 38 games at home. It remains a quarter-final that could go either way.

Emery reflects on difficult Lille test

"A difficult match," said Emery. "We are ready to play another 90 minutes. We played the first 90 minutes, did not control the game how we wanted, defensively doing more work than we prepared for, because we wanted to control the game with our positioning.

"They are a good team, tactically good. We needed the goalkeeper in the first half, Emi was fantastic, saving some attacks from them. In the second half, we were better. It is better 2-0 than 2-1 but they are a very good team as well, we have to accept it.

"The result is tight. Now we have another 90 minutes, enjoy playing a quarter-final, be ready to play extra-time, even a penalty shoot-out. Everything is difficult."

Player of the match: Emiliano Martinez

Villa owe their slender advantage to goalkeeper Martinez. The statistics suggest that the Argentina international has saved three more goals than expected in the Premier League this season. It felt like he managed that in one night against Lille.

The stats will say that the odds were not that badly against him but when players race behind the defence with only the goalkeeper to beat, they are disappointed if they fail to finish. And yet, against Martinez, the odds seem to tilt more in his favour.

Emiliano Martinez was on form in Aston Villa's first-leg win over Lille in the Europa Conference League
Image: Emiliano Martinez was on form in Aston Villa's first-leg win over Lille in the Europa Conference League

The Yashin Award winner exudes confidence - arrogance, even. Everyone saw that in Qatar and he carries that reputation with pride but the edge is technical as well as mental. He forced David wide. Stood up when Zhegrova looked for the corner.

Emery has been much praised for his success at Villa - and rightly so. But this was a night that offered a reminder of the importance of their goalkeeper in facilitating that. Do not be surprised if Martinez makes the difference in the return leg too.

Watkins disappointed to concede

Speaking to TNT Sports after the game, Watkins said: "Going into each game I feel confident and I have a belief I can score. When I'm not scoring, I'm always working hard so that no one can question my work rate and mentality. Then, the goals will come."

Lille's goal, just after Watkins had been substituted, changes things. "A lot of hard work is put into our set-pieces. We're disappointed to concede at the end as it gives them belief for the second game. We've had a lot of opportunities ourselves to score more."

What's next?

Aston Villa are back in Premier League action on Sunday when they travel to Emery's former club Arsenal before making the trip to Lille for the return leg of this tie next Thursday. That game against the Gunners is live on Sky Sports Premier League, kick-off at 4.30pm.

Live Super Sunday

Lille have been aided by being given a free weekend in Ligue 1, having had their previous game against Marseille shifted to last Friday in order to maximise preparation time. As a result, the second leg against Villa is the next game for Fonseca's side.

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