A fine display from Ashley Young at Villa Park gave Martin O'Neill's side the best possible start in their UEFA cup campaign, beating Ajax 2-1.
Villa started at a high tempo, whilst Ajax looked nervous early on. Villa's fast start and early dominance paid off when Ashley Young whipped over a corner for skipper Martin Laursen to head home on eight minutes.
While Villa controlled large parts of the first half, Ajax worked their way back into the game and equalised on 24 minutes when Thomas Vermaelen rose ahead of three Ajax teammates to head in from Urby Emanuelson's corner.
Villa were without John Carew, who is suffering from an illness, and long-term injury casualty Wilfred Bouma. The Midlanders missed the talismanic Norwegian up front, and Gabby Agbonlahor was asked to fill in as the central striker.
Villa's makeshift front three of Young, Milner, and Agbonlahor threatened every time they got on the ball. Milner and Young's pace and delivery caused problems for Ajax all night. Agbonlahor worked hard in an unfamiliar role at the centre of Villa's three-pronged attack before suffering a nasty looking injury with two minutes to go.
The name Ajax is synonymous with great young talent. Names like Gullit, Kanu, Seedorf, Bergkamp, and the great Johan Cruyff have all rolled off Ajax's production line and moved onto superstardom. Ajax's current manager, Marco van Basten, is also a product of the now legendary Ajax youth system.
The most recent wonderkid to play for Ajax is Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The Dutchman scored 70 goals in 82 games in his first two seasons at the Amsterdam club, but so far this season he has struggled to regain anything like that kind of form, scoring only two goals this season.
Huntelaar's poor form continued at Villa Park tonight. He looked off the pace and very rarely threatened. On this evidence, the endless rumours of him being signed by an English club and bursting onto the premiership scene can finally stop.
Van Basten's men were met with a raucous atmosphere at Villa Park. The Villa faithful have been starved of big European nights such as this for far too long, and they were going to enjoy this one against one of the more glamorous UEFA cup contenders.
The first half came to an end with Villa getting back into the driving seat. Ashley Young and Nicky Shorey threatened down the left, and again it was Young's right-foot cross that led to the goal. Barry latched onto Young's deflected cross and coolly slotted the ball past the sprawling Vermeer on 45 minutes.
It was a nervy last half hour for Villa. Emanuelson threatened Friedel's goal with a powerful left-foot shot, but the home side held firm to give their fans a memorable and welcome return to European football.
O'Neill's side are inexperienced in European football; the Villa youngsters could have been overcome by the emotion of the night. This was a solid performance, work-man-like if you will, and an easier test than their opponents' storied history would suggest.
(4-1-4-1) B Friedel; L Young, C Cuellar, M Laursen, N Shorey; S Petrov; J Milner, N Reo-Coker (C Gardner, 81), G Barry, A Young; G Agbonlahor.
Subs: B Guzan, S Sidwell, M Harewood, C Davies, Z Knight, M Salifou.
Goals: Laursen (8), Barry (45)
Booked: Cuellar, Gardner
(4-3-3) K Vermeer; B Silva (G Van Der Wiel, 78), Oleguer, T Vermaelen, U Emanuelson; Gabri, R Lindgren, J Vertonghen; L Suarez (L Vitor Santiago, 60), K Huntelaar, J Sarpong (D Cvitanich, 56).
Subs: H Vonk, E Sno, V Anita, R Schilder.
Goals: Vermaelen (21)
Referee: T Einwaller (Austria)
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