February 25, 2024

Aston Villa 1-0 Zrinjski Mostar: McGinn rescues Emery’s team with a last-gasp winner in a tense group match.

Aston Villa avoided disgrace with a 1-0 victory over Zrinjski Mostar at Villa Park thanks to a late winner by John McGinn.

The skipper scored in the fourth minute of added time to break the visitors’ hearts.

Villa’s Europa Conference League campaign appears to be on hold until then, as the hosts were frustrated by their well-organized and feisty opponents, who refused to yield until the very end.

Despite dominating, Villa was unable to break down Mostar and had a penalty call overturned in the second half.

After replays revealed that Ollie Watkins’ header struck Slobodan Jakovljevic in the face, referee Urs Schnyder reversed his decision to give a spot-kick for handball.

As the Bosnian champions fell barely short in Group E, Nemanja Bilbija squandered the visitors’ finest chance in the first half.

Ezri Konsa, who was left out of England’s newest team, admitted to have never heard of the visitors. He would not have been alone.

The club that gave a 17-year-old Luka Modric his professional debut, club boss Krunoslav Rendulic, termed it the biggest game in the visitors’ history.

Antonio Ivancic threatened early, lobbing the ball over Emi Martinez only to be denied by a lack of support, before the goalkeeper had to parry Bilbija’s drive following Marijo Cuze’s low cross.

In between, Nicolo Zaniolo twice threatened but it was a chance Mostar should have taken.

They had, at least, sapped the energy from Villa Park in the opening 20 minutes and the hosts’ frustrations were underlined when McGinn was booked for an obvious dive.

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As a team Villa are still learning to adapt to European football and the opening 3-2 defeat at Legia Warsaw did little to justify their favourites tag in the competition. In the first half at Villa Park, there were even fewer hints.

Mostar fought back from 3-0 down to beat AZ Alkmaar 4-3 last month and were comfortable, Zaniolo’s overhead kick allowing goalkeeper Marko Maric to offer a save for the cameras but there was little else to trouble them.

Unai Emery had seen enough and summoned Watkins, Douglas Luiz and Matty Cash from the bench and their arrival lifted Villa.

Watkins conjured a chance for Diego Carlos, only for the defender to get his header all wrong and the striker thought he had earned a penalty eight minutes into the second half.

Cash’s cross was met by Watkins, whose header cannoned into the face of Jakovljevic – with official Schnyder giving a spot-kick for handball.

It was clear, though, the ball hit the defender in the face and once Schnyder had checked his monitor he correctly overturned the decision.

It did finally light a fire under Villa and Maric saved Diego Costa’s header as the hosts camped in Mostar’s half for the rest of the game.

Youri Tielemans and Zaniolo went close before McGinn rescued the hosts in stoppage time. Cash got free on the right and crossed for the midfielder to nod in from six yards.

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