Aston Villa FC held off a determined SK Slavia Praha comeback to claim a narrow win that gives them an early three-point advantage atop UEFA Cup Group F.
Karel Jarolím was yesterday named Czech Coach of the Year but celebrations were cut short on a frustrating evening at Eden Stadium. Villa were dominant before the interval, even if their goal midway through the first half owed much to good fortune as Steve Sidwell's shot took a heavy deflection off John Carew, leaving goalkeeper Martin Vaniak helpless as it span into the far corner. Slavia could have been two or three down by the break but the second half was all theirs, possession and chances alike – albeit without an end result.
A combination of injury, paternity leave and Martin O'Neill's decision to rest several of his first choices gave Villa's starting XI an unusual appearance, and they initially struggled to gel. Twice the visitors were almost punished for giving their opponents too much space, with right-back Matej Krajčík firing wide, before Jaroslav Černý's excellent low shot from 25 metres forced Brad Guzan to beat the ball away convincingly. Yet the English side posed a big threat going forward themselves, and though Vaniak did well to keep out a Craig Gardner volley, he could do nothing about the opener on 26 minutes.
Slavia have the best defence in the Czech 1. Liga, having conceded only seven goals in 12 games, yet Villa could have doubled the advantage almost immediately as Young's curling free-kick rattled the upright, with Vaniak beaten. The keeper was better placed on 34 minutes to deny Carew after Young's clever cutback as the Birmingham club looked to cement their authority. Slavia were not out of it, however, and Marek Jarolím could and should have equalised before half-time, failing to get enough purchase on his left-footed effort, which allowed Guzan to save at his near post. It was a sign of things to come.
Within four minutes of the restart Tomáš Necid had an attempt chalked off for offside and, after Krajčík's cross-shot whistled past the post, the excellent Guzan did well to frustrate Černý. Space was opening up for Černý and Jarolím, while Necid grew in stature, and the young striker perhaps went closer than anybody to an equaliser with a header that dropped just the wrong side of the upright as Villa held on.