Match report as goals from Diego Carlos and Ollie Watkins turn the game around for Aston Villa as they recover from Vangelis Pavlidis' opener to beat AZ Alkmaar 2-1 at Villa Park. Unai Emery's team stay second in Europa Conference League Group E
Thursday 9 November 2023 23:04, UK
Aston Villa came from behind to beat AZ Alkmaar 2-1 at Villa Park and all but secure qualification to the knockout stages of the Europa Conference League.
Vangelis Pavlidis had given the Eredivisie side the lead early in the second half but Diego Carlos headed Villa level just after the hour mark before Ollie Watkins nodded in the winner in the 81st minute.
Unai Emery's side remain second in Group E following Legia Warsaw's victory but there is now a six-point gap to third. The Polish side come to Villa Park next with the prize of winning the group and securing a route straight to the round of 16 on the line.
Villa overwhelmed AZ in Alkmaar just a fortnight ago, running out 4-1 winners, and there were hints at a gulf in quality in those early moments as the home side started strongly. The first goal looked to have come inside three minutes when Clement Lenglet nodded in.
Following a VAR review, crosser Leon Bailey was adjudged to have been offside near the goal line. Villa did dominate the ball thereafter but could not create an opening quite so clear for the rest of the half, while Pavlidis found rather more space at the other end.
The Greek striker has 14 goals in 11 Eredivisie games so far this season and it was easy to see why. He almost chipped Emi Martinez with one ambitious effort before missing the target when better placed. When he did find the net following a fine move, the flag went up.
But with Villa persisting with that high defensive line, Pavlidis did eventually find a way through, racing clear from near the halfway line before lifting the ball beyond Martinez. The AZ support were raucous at that point, Villa's European campaign stuttering.
The game turned again on a controversial corner decision that had AZ boss Pascal Jansen fuming. Lucas Digne crossed for Boubacar Kamara and the midfielder somehow spooned his shot over from close range. The referee awarded a corner and Villa capitalised.
Carlos's header altered the energy inside the stadium and Villa pushed hard for the winner but it took the introduction of Douglas Luiz to make it happen. The Brazilian midfielder emerged from the bench and provided the delightful pass to find Watkins.
It was not Villa's most convincing performance and AZ came away wondering whether they might have made more of those spaces behind the Villa back line. But Watkins won it and his side are well placed to progress following their eighth win in nine home games this season.
Jansen admitted to being curious to see how his team would compete after being blown away in Alkmaar and liked what he saw for much of the game as AZ had some encouraging moments against Villa's high line. But he felt the game hinged on a decision.
"We were unfortunate to concede a corner kick that wasn't a corner kick. It should not be possible that this happens but it was a human mistake. We have the monitor so we could see it. I contacted the fourth official because there was no AZ player near the ball."
Speaking afterwards, Emery acknowledged that the corner from which Villa equalised should not have been awarded but was pleased with the resilience shown by his side. "Today, the reaction after they scored the goal was fantastic," said the Villa boss.
"We controlled the emotion when things were not going well." He added: "I'm very happy because when we are winning a game like tonight we can understand this competition better and the processes we're trying to build.
"I'm very proud of our work in this competition. We're getting better. We scored one that was offside more or less. We have to accept the referee's decision, always.
"AZ are a very good team. We had to be strong and we have to take the experiences from games like tonight, another win in Europe.
Indeed, it was Emery's 100th victory as a manager in UEFA competition.
"At home, Villa have been excellent all season," said former Villa man Lee Hendrie, watching the game for Sky Sports News.
"But I liked the fact they showed character this evening more than anything. There were times when they could have put the game to bed. It was a tight game in the end. AZ were asking questions with Villa playing that high line that they do.
"The pass from Douglas Luiz for Watkins was exquisite. This is what the Villa fans want to see. It's a massive football club that has been sleeping for quite some time. This is what they want, these European nights.
"And now it is set up for a real key game at the end of the month against Legia Warsaw. Exiting times - and the bounce back from Nottingham Forest at the weekend shows they have got character."
Douglas Luiz needed a rest. He has started every Premier League game this season for Aston Villa and was even in the starting line-up for their Carabao Cup tie. He has come on as a substitute in the three games that he has not started - and he made the difference.
It is the fewest minutes that he has played in any game for Villa this season but it was enough time to make a decisive impact. His run of scoring in six consecutive Premier League home games came to an end against Luton. This assist showcased his creative side.
"Every player has to be ready to get the impact on the pitch to help the team," said Emery of Luiz afterwards. "It was fantastic really because he played 20 to 25 minutes being focused trying to add his energy and quality. It was a fantastic assist. He is a good example."
Youri Tielemans deputised and certainly had his moments, playing a nice pass to Lucas Digne just prior to the corner from which Villa equalised. But with Boubacar Kamara established as the man to break things up, Luiz continues to look the superior option.
Aston Villa's final fixture before the international break comes on Sunday as they face Fulham in the Premier League; kick-off 2pm. Their next Europa Conference League fixture is on Thursday November 30 at home to Legia Warsaw.
AZ Alkmaar face Feyenoord in the Eredivisie on Sunday; kick-off 3.45pm. Their next Europa League fixture is on Thursday November 30 against Zrinjski.