CSKA Moscow 2 - 0 Aston Villa: End of the road for Villa as CSKA sink O'Neill's 'reserves'
Zhirkov (61), Love (90) CSKA win 3-1 on aggregate
ASTON Villa's 'reserves' did not disgrace themselves after being exposed to the bitter Moscow cold and manager Martin O'Neill's ambitions.
But this was always going to be a bridge too far for a makeshift side in the wake of eight first-team regulars controversially being left at home, and so it proved in the return leg of this last-32 tie.
On the plastic pitch at CSKA's Luzhniki Stadium it required second-half strikes from Yuri Zhirkov on the hour and Vagner Love in the third minute of stoppage time to break Villa's resistance.
Everyone had known in advance O'Neill would field a weakened side, but even when he confirmed the squad on Tuesday it took people by surprise.
The fact O'Neill kept so many stars behind said it all, making it clear his over-riding priority this season is to qualify for the Champions League.
With no Gareth Barry, Brad Friedel, Emile Heskey, James Milner, Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Carlos Cuellar and Stiliyan Petrov, there was every danger Villa would be like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery.
O'Neill had certainly made no apology in advance for his decision, one he described as his hardest since his arrival at the club. The Northern Irishman was left hoping the Villa fans – in particular the 300 that had paid hard-earned cash to trek to Moscow – would understand the logic behind his thinking. Standing in sub-zero temperatures for two hours is hardly anybody's idea of fun, but those hardy souls were at least offered a glimpse of the future, if nothing else.
That was due to O'Neill springing another surprise with his line-up by handing full debuts to 19-year-olds Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan, who operated on the left and right-wings respectively. Both could have folded under the pressure, but instead the teenage duo grabbed their chances with both hands as they gave accomplished displays, suggesting they may be at the club for the long term.
In fairness, CSKA barely moved out of first gear, seemingly happy Villa's 'second string' would have little to offer, and so it proved. The chances that came in the first half all fell the way of the home side, but then not once was Brad Guzan called on to make a save.
What proved to be Villa's only worthwhile effort of the game came in the 14th minute when the lively Albrighton's cross found fellow 19-year-old Nathan Delfouneso for a volley comfortably taken by Igor Akinfeev.
At least O'Neill took a positive stance at the start of the second half, abandoning his ineffective 4-5-1 line-up and switching to a 4-4-2 by replacing Salifou with Marlon Harewood.
That, though, only gave CSKA the space they had lacked in the first half, underlined by two gilt-edged chances that went begging in the opening 10 minutes.
Initially, Milos Krasic skirted Curtis Davies' tackle, but with a clear sight of goal flashed a right-foot drive marginally wide of the right-hand post.
A minute later Krasic played in an onside Zhirkov, but after racing into the area and with only Guzan to beat, the American stood tall and bravely blocked with his body, much to CSKA manager Zico's frustration. But the Brazilian was soon back on his feet, this time leading the celebrations after watching Zhirkov rifle home the opener on the hour.
Another Davies tackle on Krasic on the right-hand corner of the area resulted in German referee Felix Brych harshly punishing the centre-back. That allowed Alan Dzagoev to tee up Zhirkov for a thunderous drive from the edge of the area that flew through a crowd of players and inside the left-hand post.
Other opportunities followed, with Guzan twice denying Zhirkov again, before CSKA gained their reward with virtually the last kick of the game via Love's 10th goal of the competition and 26th in 42 European games overall.
CSKA Moscow: Akinfeev, Alexei Berezutsky, Vasili Berezutsky, Ignashevich, Shchennikov, Krasic, Rahimic, Semberas, Zhirkov, Dzagoev, Vagner Love. Subs: Pomazan, Odiah, Daniel Carvalho, Mamaev, Erkin, Ramon, Ricardo Jesus.
Aston Villa: Guzan, Luke Young, Davies, Knight, Shorey, Albrighton, Gardner, Salifou, Sidwell, Bannan, Delfouneso. Subs: Taylor, Lichaj, Clark, Osbourne, Lowry, Harewood.
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany)
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