Heroes and Villans: How Emery has relit the flame of European desire | Ben Fisher

Heroes and Villans: How Emery has relit the flame of European desire | Ben Fisher

Unai Emery took a deep breath, digested the question and delivered a considered response. Moments earlier, staff in Uefa clothing had hastily erected a Europa Conference League-branded backboard inside a nondescript room at Bodymoor Heath, Aston Villa’s training base, and for the manager the topic of conversation soon turned to their quest to qualify for the Champions League.

Has Emery been able, in the quieter moments of a congested schedule, to reflect on the strides his side have made in little more than 18 months, since he inherited a team outside the Premier League relegation zone on goals scored alone? “At the beginning of the season, to be where we are now, maybe it was the best we could have hoped for,” he says.

Emery has guided Villa to their first major European semi-final since they lifted the European Cup in Rotterdam in 1982, with Olympiakos the visitors to Villa Park on Thursday, which promises to be an electric night. In recent weeks Villa have made an effort to crank up the pre-match atmosphere by shifting the spot where the team bus drops off the players. No longer is it a case of hopping off the coach and heading straight into the players’ entrance. Now Emery and his players disembark on Trinity Road, near the statue of William McGregor, the former club chairman and founder of the Football League, before walking through a hazy tunnel of claret and blue.

“It gives you a proper boost, when you turn up and there are flares and the fans singing,” says the defender Matty Cash. “It is something we speak about as boys. It will be another special night.”

Villa have ticked off trips to Alkmaar, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Lille, Mostar and Warsaw on their European journey. Next week they fly to Athens for the decisive second leg but, before then, they travel to Brighton in the Premier League. Villa’s steady, season-long pursuit of the top four with a thin squad has been impressive but, while nothing is yet secured, given their exertions in Europe perhaps it has gone somewhat unrecognised. In February, Boubacar Kamara became the third Villa player to sustain a season-ending knee injury. Youri Tielemans will miss the first leg because of a niggling groin problem and Emiliano Martínez is suspended after his divisive but ultimately heroic shootout antics in Lille caught up with him.

Robin Olsen will deputise in goal. Olsen, who has won 73 caps for Sweden and played in the Champions League for Copenhagen, arrived as backup to Martínez after leaving Roma two years ago. “When he has played he has been successful with his characteristics and the performances we want,” Emery says. “To be here with Emi is very difficult but Robin is always very respectful of the situation and he wants to help us here in the moments we can give him to play.”

Fans set off smoke bombs outside Villa ParkView image in fullscreen

Emery has restored pride at the club in double-quick time. Villa could qualify for the Champions League as early as Sunday if Tottenham fail to beat Chelsea and Liverpool this week. “We’ve made a statement over the last year and half, ever since the manager has come in,” Cash says. “From the get-go we started really strongly with him and did well to get into the Conference League, by finishing seventh last year, and now we’re in with a shout to be in the Champions League.

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“If you finish in the top four and you win a European competition, it is a special season. That is something as a group and as a club we want to do but there is work to do. The [typical] top six get spoken about more than we do and [we] probably [don’t get] the credit we deserve, but we can keep going as the underdogs and keep winning. That’s the best thing, isn’t it?”

Source: theguardian.com