Aston Villa boss Unai Emery knows his side have plenty of work to do in next week’s Europa Conference League quarter-final second leg in Lille.

Villa will travel to France with a 2-1 advantage thanks to first-leg goals from Ollie Watkins and John McGinn gave the on-looking Prince of Wales something to cheer about.

But Lille showed they are no pushovers and Bafode Diakite’s late header kept the tie alive after they had been repelled by an impressive performance from Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.

Villa must now go to northern France next week and finish the job if they are to make their first European semi-final since they won the European Cup in 1982.

That will not be an easy task as the French football federation have postponed Lille’s Ligue 1 game this weekend to give them extra time to prepare and they have only been beaten once at home all season.

Emery, who celebrated his 1,000th game as a manager, said: “Difficult match, we are ready to play another 90 minutes, we played the first 90 minutes, we didn’t control the game like we wanted and defensively we were doing more work than we prepared for because we wanted to control the game with our positioning.

“With the respect we have got for them, they showed it.

“The result is tight, but more or less it was a fine for both teams. Now another 90 minutes, enjoy playing in Europe, enjoy playing a quarter-final.

“Be ready to play 90 minutes, even extra time, even a penalty shootout because now it is in this moment everything is difficult.”

Lille boss Paulo Fonseca, who almost took over at Newcastle and Tottenham in the last few years, felt Watkins’ goal should have been disallowed for a foul by Morgan Rogers on Ismally.

“I don’t understand what is going on, it was a foul on the first goal,” he said.

“I understand it is difficult for the referee with VAR it is just incredible they miss these things. It’s not good what is going on in football, the referees must look at what is going on in the moment.

“A lot of matches, it is not football, it is blocking like in basketball. The first goal was a clear foul, a clear block. Being physical is one thing, fouling is another.”

However, after the way they created chances at Villa Park, Fonseca knows the tie is very much alive.

“We created the opportunity to get a better result,” he added. “I’m satisfied with the courage of my players but at the end of the day, we’ve lost.

“I know that it’s difficult match, they’ve got great players, a great coach and a lot of experience so they have certain advantages but I must continue to believe it’s possible.”

Aston Villa earned royal approval as the Prince of Wales watched his beloved club beat Lille 2-1 in the first leg of their Europa Conference League quarter-final at Villa Park.

Goals in either half from Ollie Watkins and John McGinn saw Villa lead their first European last-eight tie since 1998 and give boss Unai Emery victory in his 1,000th match as a manager.

Prince William and his son Prince George celebrated the goals wildly but will have been concerned about what happened at the other end.

Bafode Diakite’s late header gave Lille a lifeline just as it looked like they would head home frustrated by Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who had made a string of big saves.

Villa must now go to northern France next week and finish the job if they are to make their first European semi-final since they won the European Cup in 1982.

That will not be an easy task as the French football federation have postponed Lille’s Ligue 1 game this weekend to give them extra time to prepare and they have only been beaten once at home all season.

After an early scare, which required a vital intervention from Pau Torres to deny Hakon Arnar Haraldsson a tap-in following Diego Carlos’ error, Villa took command.

Lille boss Paulo Fonseca, perenially linked with a move to England, said in his pre-match press conference that his side would pay special attention to Watkins, but allowed him three quickfire chances.

The first came after Watkins capitalised on Leny Yoro’s dive and was denied by Benjamin Andre’s last-ditch tackle, with the England striker shooting straight at Lucas Chevalier from the resulting corner.

It was from another corner that Watkins did get on the scoresheet in the 13th minute, as he was left unmarked from McGinn’s corner to power home a header from close range, though Lille thought there was a foul by Morgan Rogers.

Only another last-ditch tackle from Diakhite denied Watkins a second after Douglas Luiz had played him in, but from the resulting corner Villa were almost stung on the counter-attack.

Former Tottenham and Newcastle midfielder Nabil Bentaleb’s ball fell to Edon Zhegrova at the far post and he looked primed to score until Martinez came out to smother the shot.

That gave Lille confidence and they looked a threat, with Martinez producing an almost identical stop to deny Diakhite after Haraldsson had set him clear.

Martinez was quickly becoming Villa’s key player and produced another block to keep his side in front after a misplaced pass from Rogers allowed Lille to break, although star man Jonathan David was unable to get his shot past the World Cup winner.

The half-time break proved welcome for Villa, who came out with a roar after the break and doubled their lead in the 56th minute.

It was another corner that did the job as Leon Bailey’s scuffed cross fell perfectly to McGinn, who stroked home delightfully from the edge of the penalty area.

Villa seemed in total control but Lille gave them a scare in the 63rd minute when Gudmondsson converted at the far post, only for VAR to decide he was narrowly offside.

Martinez again showed his quality with saves from Gudmondsson and Haraldsson but he was eventually breached in the 84th minute as an unmarked Diakite glanced home from a corner.

Aston Villa boss Unai Emery said Ollie Watkins’ knee injury sustained in the 4-0 Europa Conference League last-16 win over 10-man Ajax was “not more than a cut”.

Watkins, named in England boss Gareth Southgate’s latest squad earlier on Thursday, headed Villa in front in the 25th minute, having already sustained the injury in a challenge with Ajax goalkeeper Diant Ramaj.

But the former Brentford striker limped off eight minutes later and had to watch his team-mates run riot in the second half with Leon Bailey, John Duran and Moussa Diaby goals killing off the tie after last week’s goalless draw in Amsterdam.

It sent Villa through to their first European quarter-final since 1998 and their mood will be heightened even more by the good news on Watkins’ injury.

“The injury is not more than a cut on the knee,” boss Unai Emery said. “Maybe he is available for Sunday, I think maybe we have to wait for tomorrow and Saturday, but it is a cut.”

Watkins’ goal put Villa on course for a win which became much easier in the second half when Ajax were reduced to 10 men.

Villa were 2-0 up by that point through Bailey’s strike, with Duran and Diaby booking their spot in the next round.

“We were very respectful of them. We were how we needed to face them here with our supporters at Villa Park, trying to perform better than the opposition with our quality on the pitch,” the Spaniard added.

“The second half was easier for us after the red card. We’re happy because we are motivated in this competition.”

Ajax defender Devyne Rensch was frank in his assessment of his side’s exit.

He said: “Yeah, it’s s**t. It’s painful we are used to winning for cups and competing and that is not going to happen.

“It’s a real let down, it’s a disappointment, it shouldn’t be happening, but we have to move on.

“Being Ajax we are always in the running for the top prizes and this season it is just not the case and it is very difficult to accept that.”

Aston Villa boss Unai Emery knows his side survived a scare in their goalless draw at Ajax in their last-16 Europa Conference League first-leg tie.

Villa were second best throughout the night at the Johan Cruijff ArenA but the Dutch giants, led by England international Jordan Henderson, could not make their advantage count as it ended 0-0.

But Emery’s men will now be confident of winning next week’s second leg at Villa Park, where they are so strong, and booking their spot in the quarter-finals.

“It is always difficult to play away in Europe, here you see the atmosphere they have,” he said.

“It was a very high level match, we are taking experiences in Europe and we can feel favourites but it’s very difficult and if you’re showing in other matches in Europa League or the Europa Conference League you can see some big surprises.

“I’m happy, we didn’t play well, we didn’t control the game like we prepared and like we usually do but I accept that as well.

“They worked and they were very intense in the tactical play. They were winning more than us in some moments in the field and they deserve more.

“I’m happy because I knew before the difficulties we were going to face, the players are a little bit upset because they were not feeling comfortable but to compete is the most important.

“For me now it’s very important this result is open for next week and now we will try to do something different and try to respect them, because now we know them better.

“My message before was the same. At Villa Park we need our moment next week and try to play and be more successful than today in our idea.

“We didn’t deserve more than we got tonight.”

Villa were reliant on goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to produce an important save in the second half and were unable to produce their dynamic attacking football at the other end.

Both sides were reduced to 10 men in the final 10 minutes as Ezri Konsa was harshly sent off for two yellow cards, with Tristan Gooijer following for the hosts moments later.

Ajax are nothing like the side that reached the semi-finals of the Champions League five years ago and are labouring in fifth in the Eredivisie.

They signed Henderson in the January transfer window to try and provide some experience and coach John van ‘t Schip says he is already delivering and could still do a job for England.

“He is a real professional, he is a leader, I think you can see it on the pitch, the boys around him feel that and expect that.

“He had a difficult start because he came out of Saudi Arabia and didn’t play for a month and he wasn’t happy. He immediately found his pleasure back in training and playing games.

“At first he maybe didn’t get the results he wanted but now clearly you can see he is very important, not only on the pitch but also off the pitch, talking about things that can improve the whole environment.

“We have seen him play today and against PSV, two big games, then for sure and I think Southgate knows very well what he can get from Jordan.”

Aston Villa survived a testing assignment at Ajax as they drew 0-0 in the first leg of the Europa Conference League last-16 in Amsterdam.

Villa were second best throughout the night at the Johan Cruijff Arena but the Dutch giants, led by England international Jordan Henderson, could not make their advantage count as it ended goalless.

They were reliant on goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to produce an important save and were unable to produce their dynamic attacking football at the other end.

Both sides were reduced to 10 men in the final 10 minutes as Ezri Konsa was harshly sent off for two yellow cards, with Tristian Gooijer following for the hosts moments later.

But Unai Emery’s men will now be confident of winning in next week’s second leg at Villa Park, where they are so strong, and booking their spot in the quarter-finals.

With a crunch game in the race for the Premier League top four against Tottenham to come on Sunday, Emery made several changes to his side, with John McGinn and Leon Bailey among those dropping out.

One of the replacements, Moussa Diaby, almost made an early impact when he created space for himself only to shoot straight at Ajax goalkeeper Diant Ramaj.

Ajax are nothing like the side that reached the semi-finals of the Champions League five years ago and are labouring in fifth in the Dutch Eredivisie.

But they gave the Villa the run around in a first half where Emery’s men were pegged back and lucky to survive.

Henderson gave them a scare on the half-hour when he whipped a 25-yard free-kick over Martinez’s crossbar before the home side’s big chance six minutes later.

Jorrel Hato brought the ball out of defence and played in Brian Brobbey with a defence-splitting pass, but the Netherlands international shot into the side-netting as he closed in on goal.

Villa did not improve much after the break and brought on McGinn and Bailey to try and get control of the game.

But they were reliant on Martinez to keep them level in the 68th minute as the World Cup winner produced a smart stop to keep out Kenneth Taylor’s effort from Borna Sosa’s cut back.

Villa’s task looked like getting harder after Konsa had to walk for a second yellow card when it looked like he was being fouled.

But Gooijer picked up his second booking moments later and Villa were able to see the game out unscathed.

Leon Bailey is set for contract talks at Aston Villa thanks to his sparkling recent form for Unai Emery's title challengers.

The Jamaican was among those Villa were willing to let go last summer but he has developed into a key player this term, scoring six goals and providing five assists to help Emery's men into second, three points behind leaders Liverpool.

Bailey joined Villa in 2021 for about £25million with part of the proceeds from the £100m sale of Jack Grealish to Manchester City, and signed an initial four-year deal thought to include options for extension.

But so impressive has Bailey been in the autumn and winter that Villa are keen to reward him with fresh terms and elevate him closer to Villa's top bracket of earners, which includes Emi Martinez, Tyrone Mings, Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins. 

Since Emery replaced Steven Gerrard in October 2022, Villa's wage bill has increased significantly, with Mings, Watkins, Martinez, John McGinn and Ezri Konsa among the players who have had big pay rises.

Bailey scored as Villa beat Burnley 3-2 in their final game of 2023, though he is likely to be among several players given a breather for Saturday's FA Cup tie at Middlesbrough. 

He said: “I'm very pleased with the way things are going for me personally. 

“I'm here to help the team as much as possible. Whenever I'm called upon, I'm here.

“I am used to the games coming so quickly like this. I've always been playing in both domestic competitions and in Europe. 

“So it's tough on your body but this is what we are in the game to do.”


Police have charged 46 men after Legia Warsaw supporters attacked police outside Villa Park in Birmingham on Thursday.

West Midlands Police said five officers, two police dogs and two police horses were injured when missiles were thrown by visiting fans during the Europa Conference League fixture.

In a statement confirming details of the charges, the force said 43 men have been charged with a public order offence, two with assaulting police officers and another with possession of a knife.

The statement added: “Those charged are aged between 21 and 63, and around 40 are believed to be from Poland. A small number are believed to be UK residents.

“All apart from one of the men is due in court today. He has been bailed to appear at a later date. A special court has been set up at Birmingham magistrates and will begin hearing the cases this morning.”

Officers are continuing to review CCTV and body-worn video footage to identify further suspects after “what was an appalling and violent public disorder”.

Two West Midlands Police officers, two from West Mercia and one from Derbyshire Police suffered minor injuries during the violence.

Detective Superintendent Jim Munro, who is overseeing the criminal investigation, said: “Our investigation is very much continuing and we’ll be reviewing footage and speaking to witnesses over the coming days.

“To charge this number of people so soon after such a major disorder has taken a huge effort by staff who have been working around the clock.

“We’ve had a number of messages of thanks from the club and fans who were present on Thursday night and saw the policing operation first hand, and we are really grateful for that support.”

Police said fans of the Polish side were not allowed into the stadium after missiles were thrown at officers before the start of the match.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street has called for European football chiefs to take “strong action” as he thanked the “brave officers” and criticised the “deeply unpleasant scenes”.

In a previous statement, Chief Inspector Tim Robinson said: “This should have been a great evening of football which was enjoyed by fans from both clubs. Unfortunately, there were appalling scenes which saw away fans dangerously throw flares and other missiles at our officers.”

He said the “extreme violence” left police with no other choice but to prevent away fans entering the stadium, adding: “The safety of everyone is our priority and clearly we had no other option.”

Aston Villa have condemned the violence from Legia Warsaw fans which left police injured before their Europa Conference League game at Villa Park.

Missiles were thrown at police as the visiting fans were held in the coach park near the stadium, before they were due to enter for Thursday’s group game.

Three police officers were injured and although the game started on time, no Legia fans were allowed into the stadium ahead of kick-off.

Villa and West Midlands Police both released statements before the game had finished, with the Premier League club revealing requests to the Polish club before the tie for help in preventing ticketless fans from travelling went unanswered.

Villa said: “Aston Villa Football Club can confirm that no away fans were allowed into Villa Park for this evening’s UEFA Europa Conference League fixture with Legia Warsaw on the advice of West Midlands Police following large-scale disorder outside the stadium caused by visiting supporters.

“The UK safety authorities, UEFA and Aston Villa, communicated on November 2 that the ticket allocation for away fans for this fixture would be reduced to 1,002 on the advice of safety authorities as a result of previous large-scale disorder caused by Legia fans last month at AZ Alkmaar.

“A number of Dutch police officers were injured during that disorder. As a consequence, UEFA banned Legia supporters from travelling to Mostar for their game against HSK Zrinjski.

“In spite of numerous requests for cooperation from Legia Warsaw concerning their travelling supporters, especially in the last two days, no assistance on the serious safety matter of away fans attending Villa Park was forthcoming from the visiting club.

“The club has repeatedly, including this morning, raised concerns in conjunction with UEFA and all the relevant authorities to Legia that ticketless away supporters were attempting to attend Villa Park.”

Villa said Legia fans “engaged in planned and systematic violent acts against West Midlands Police officers” about an hour before kick-off.

The club added: “Aston Villa strongly condemns the behaviour of those visiting supporters and would like to thank West Midlands Police for their professionalism in very difficult circumstances.

A Birmingham Police statement on X, formerly Twitter, read: “We’re currently unable to allow away fans into Villa Park following disorder outside the stadium which has seen missiles thrown at officers.

“Three officers have already been injured & a significant policing operation continues. Please avoid Witton Lane where possible.”

Aberdeen manager Barry Robson praised his team for adapting to snowy conditions after they came from two goals down to earn a Europa Conference League point against Finnish champions HJK.

The Dons fell two goals behind inside 33 minutes but a brilliant 30-yard striker from Angus MacDonald gave them a lifeline just before the break and they took full advantage.

Luis ‘Duk’ Lopes nodded home an equaliser 11 minutes into the second half and Aberdeen had several chances to find a winner after a 13-minute delay to clear snow off the pitch.

The snow ploughs did the job but the effect was only temporary with the lines barely visible by the end of the game.

The snow fell throughout the 90 minutes amid temperatures of -5C, made colder by the wind chill factor.

Robson told RedTV: “At the start I knew the pitch wasn’t right and you could see the way we were, a couple of our players struggled on it.

“We have been on our travels a lot and that’s as tough an environment as you can play in.

“I thought first half especially they handled the conditions better than we did.

“I said to them at half-time, it’s all right saying Helsinki are on the astroturf but no, you have still got to get close to people and still got to play.

“We just came out a different Aberdeen second half and performed so well. We got the fans onside and probably should have gone on to win the game in the end.

“To come from two goals down shows the desire in the dressing room. They don’t know when they are beat and they should have won the game.

“Ach, I’m disappointed because they were brilliant, the fans. They were trying to suck us in, and we nearly got that goal to win it, which I think we deserved in the end.”

C fought back from two goals down to draw 2-2 with HJK in a Europa Conference League game that was held up by a Helsinki snow storm.

The referee briefly stopped the game early in the second half because the travelling Dons fans were throwing snowballs, before a longer delay to allow several snow ploughs to clear the pitch.

Aberdeen were two goals down inside 33 minutes but a stunning strike from Angus MacDonald gave them a lifeline.

Duk levelled in the 56th minute before the 13-minute delay. There had been snow on the artificial pitch at the Bolt Arena from the start with an orange ball deployed and there was no let-up throughout amid temperatures of -5C.

Aberdeen finished the stronger team after the game restarted but could not convert several late chances.

Both teams were consigned to a bottom-two finish in Group G after match day four and the home side’s domestic season ended on October 21 when they clinched the Finnish title on goal difference.

Barry Robson made eight changes to the team that started Sunday’s draw with Rangers. MacDonald made his first start in almost three months following an injury-hit start to the season, while 20-year-old Jack Milne and summer signing Pape Habib Gueye both made their first starts for the club.

Milne showed promise in the opening stages with a good run and cross that led to shots from Duk and Gueye but neither could get through to test the home goalkeeper.

HJK soon got on top and Kelle Roos twice saved well with his feet before the home pressure paid off in the 16th minute. Slobodan Rubezic sold himself with an over-eager attempt to cut out a forward pass and Hassane Bande took advantage as he fired high into the net.

The home side clipped the post and the bar in the following moments and Aberdeen squandered two chances to put HJK under pressure from free-kicks following cynical challenges. The Dons would be subjected to several more throughout the game as Kosovan referee Genc Nuza adopted a lenient approach, although two players were booked from each side.

Aberdeen fell further behind when Santeri Hostikka skipped past three weak challenges and fired through a crowded goalmouth into the bottom corner.

The Dons got back into the game completely out of the blue in the 41st minute. MacDonald controlled a pass 30 yards out and fired the bouncing ball into the top corner.

Robson made two half-time changes as Ester Sokler replaced the ineffective Gueye and Jamie McGrath came on for Ryan Duncan.

The referee turned to Jonny Hayes to try to stop the Aberdeen fans throwing snowballs as HJK prepared to take a goal-kick early in the second half and Sokler was also unsettling the home defence with his harrying.

The substitute’s hard work led to the corner which resulted in Aberdeen’s 56th-minute equaliser. Richard Jensen flicked on Connor Barron’s delivery and Duk nodded home at the far post.

HJK substitute Jukka Raitala fired over from six yards in the 72nd minute just before Nuza took the players off.

Aberdeen re-emerged the stronger team. McGrath and Sokler each twice threatened and substitute Bojan Miovski saw an effort saved as Aberdeen broke with numbers.

The Dons were disappointed when the final whistle eventually sounded as they searched for a winner on a pitch which was again covered in snow with the lines barely visible.

Police have been injured after violence from Legia Warsaw fans ahead of their game at Aston Villa.

Missiles were thrown at police as the visiting fans were held in the coach park near Villa Park, before they were due to enter for the Europa Conference League game on Thursday.

Three police have been injured but the game will start on time, although no Legia fans have been allowed into the stadium ahead of kick-off.

A Birmingham Police statement on X, formerly Twitter, read: “We’re currently unable to allow away fans into Villa Park following disorder outside the stadium which has seen missiles thrown at officers.

“Three officers have already been injured & a significant policing operation continues. Please avoid Witton Lane where possible.”

Jamie McGrath has targeted a positive finish to Aberdeen’s doomed Europa Conference League campaign as they prepare for the penultimate game against HJK in Finland.

The Dons are third in Group G with two points from four games, with Eintracht Frankfurt and PAOK uncatchable in the top two places.

In October a Bojan Miovski header gave Barry Robson’s side a draw after Bojan Radulovic had put the Finnish champions ahead but McGrath is looking for three points in the return game in freezing Helsinki on Thursday and in their final game against Eintracht Frankfurt at Pittodrie on December 14.

The Republic of Ireland midfielder told RedTV: “Of course you want to finish off the group with two wins if possible.

“I know they are out of season but I’m sure they’ll be fresh and ready to go and it’s going to be a very tricky game.

“We’ve seen what they could bring in our place. So they’re a good side. They have a lot of good players, a good few internationals as well.

“So we’re going  to have to be our best to take three points but hopefully we can do that.”

McGrath, who signed from Wigan in the summer, has enjoyed his whole European experience as a Don so far, despite Europa League disappointment earlier in the season when they were knocked out of the qualifiers by BK Hacken, drawing 2-2 in Sweden before losing 3-1 at Pittodrie.

He said: “It has been class to be fair. First game was Hacken away and it was brilliant.

“Obviously disappointed not to go through but the atmosphere at Pittodrie, the first home (European) game, was unbelievable.

“And then the big nights in the group stages, PAOK away and home and Frankfurt away, it was unbelievable the support we brought there, as was the support in Athens, it was phenomenal.

“Those are the nights that live in your memory when you retire, playing in front of big crowds and big European games that’s where you want to be as a player. So we’re very privileged to be able to do that.

“At Frankfurt we went there and went toe-to-toe with them away from home and that gives a great belief, especially for the younger lads.

“We have shown some really good performances but we are disappointed not to be with a chance of qualifying.”

Boss Unai Emery admitted Aston Villa got lucky after fighting back to beat AZ Alkmaar.

Ollie Watkins’ winner put them on the brink of qualification in the Europa Conference League after a 2-1 home win.

Yet, the fightback started in controversial fashion when Diego Carlos levelled after Boubacar Kamara had blazed over and referee Luis Godinho mistakenly awarded Villa a corner.

Vangelis Pavlidis gave the hosts a deserved lead but last year’s semi-finalists are now facing an early exit.

Villa are second, behind Legia Warsaw on head-to-head, and a point from their final two games will seal progress from Group E.

Emery said: “It was a very good chance for Kamara, it was fantastic, but it was not a corner, it’s clear, and after this mistake we score.

“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.

“I’m very proud of our work in this competition. We’re getting better. AZ are a very good team. I’m very happy. The reaction when they scored the goal was fantastic.”

Villa started brightly and Clement Lenglet headed in Leon Bailey’s cross – after Pavlidis blocked Watkins’ goalbound header – only for the winger to have been ruled offside.

Yet the hosts lost their way as the half wore on, Pavlidis tried to lob Emi Martinez and Alkmaar finished on top with Pavlidis testing Martinez.

It turned out the striker was just getting his eye in as he opened the scoring six minutes into the second half.

Villa were caught out by Riechedly Bazoer’s ball over the top and Pavlidis outpaced Lenglet to beat Martinez.

The hosts were not behind for long, though, when Diego Carlos nodded in Bailey’s corner – after the officials had missed it was Kamara who blazed over from six yards.

Villa had the initiative and it was no surprise when Watkins popped up with the winner with nine minutes left, nodding in Douglas Luiz’s clever pass.

Alkmaar boss Pascal Jensen said: “The interesting thing I was looking at was can we compete better in the first game (a 4-1 loss)? In Alkmaar we lost because we conceded two easy goals.

“I was a bit shocked when we started off, we conceded an early goal and we were fortunate it was disallowed. We were very unfortunate to concede a corner which wasn’t, they scored from it and the whole stadium woke up.

“I contacted the fourth official and I asked him and he said ‘I don’t know.’ I think in international competition VAR can come on the radio and help but he didn’t. With all the technology and extra eyes it shouldn’t be possible.”

Ollie Watkins came to Aston Villa’s rescue as Unai Emery’s side hit back to beat AZ Alkmaar.

The striker celebrated his England call-up to nod in with nine minutes left for a 2-1 win and put Villa on the brink of the Europa Conference League knockout stages.

Diego Carlos’ controversial goal – heading in a corner which should have never been given – quickly cancelled out Vangelis Pavlidis’ opener.

Victory left Villa joint-top of Group E, behind Legia Warsaw on their head-to-head record, knowing a point from their final two games would guarantee progress.

Legia’s 2-0 win over Zrinjski Mostar earlier on Thursday had put the Polish side three points clear in the group.

Villa knew victory would virtually secure second spot and their superiority was telling early, the hosts thinking they had the lead after just three minutes.

Ezri Konsa’s shot was deflected behind and, from the corner, Watkins header was cleared off the line by Pavlidis. The ball ran to Leon Bailey and his cross was nodded in by Clement Lenglet – only for VAR to rule the goal out with Bailey offside.

Lenglet almost gifted Alkmaar an opener, though, when Pavlidis seized on his loose pass and tried to lob Emi Martinez before horribly misjudging Ibrahim Sadiq’s superb cross.

Mat Ryan tipped Youri Tielemans’ shot behind as Villa looked to regain some momentum but there would have been frustration for Emery as their early edge slipped away.

Alkmaar even had their own goal disallowed three minutes before the break when a neat move ended with Pavlidis tapping in, although the striker was comfortably offside.

The striker then tested Martinez after Villa played themselves into trouble as the visitors ended the half on top.

It proved a warning sign as, six minutes into the second half, the striker opened the scoring with a goal of pure simplicity.

Villa were caught out by Riechedly Bazoer’s ball over the top as Pavlidis ran clear of Lengent and beat Martinez for his 15th goal of the season.

Alkmaar had something to cling to, having been 3-0 down at the same stage in the Netherlands two weeks ago, and Yuki Sugawara’s shot deflected wide.

Yet Villa contentiously levelled after an hour. Lucas Digne’s cross was blazed over by Boubacar Kamara but referee Luis Godinho inexplicably gave a corner.

Somewhat inevitably, when Bailey delivered the ball Diego Carlos nodded in.

It gave Villa renewed confidence and, with time running out, Watkins grabbed the winner when he stole in ahead of Jordy Clasie to nod in Douglas Luiz’s fine pass.

Aberdeen have reported racist abuse which was allegedly directed towards Senegalese forward Pape Habib Gueye during their Europa Conference League encounter against PAOK in Greece.

The Dons revealed that it was brought to their attention during the second half that the unused substitute was “the victim of racial abuse from a section of PAOK supporters”.

A statement added: “Aberdeen FC club staff immediately informed the UEFA venue director and following conclusion of the match met with the UEFA match delegate to officially report the matter.

“Pape has the unwavering support of his teammates and all at Aberdeen FC will liaise fully with UEFA during the course of their investigations into this very serious matter.

“As a club we have zero tolerance for any form of discrimination or racist abuse. There is no place for such behaviour in football, or society as a whole.”

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