It’s getting serious now.
Thursday evening sees Aston Villa travel across the channel to the Netherlands to face a strong AZ Alkmaar side. This game takes us to the halfway point in the Europa Conference League Group E as all participants will have faced each other once.
Both teams could do with all three points on Thursday as Group E looks the closest of all of far with all sides sitting on three points and a goal difference of zero after two games. In effect, it’s a clean slate with one-third of the group done.
Villa are coming off the back of a last-gasp 1-0 win over Zrinjski Mostar, a much-needed victory after the 3-2 loss in Poland to a clinical Legia Warszawa side.
Alkmaar, like Villa, won their first game of the group stage in their second game after they welcomed Legia and were victorious thanks to an Evangelos Pavlidis winner in the 52nd minute. However, they were starstruck in the opening game after astonishingly blowing a 3-0 lead to Zrinjski as the Bosnian side scored all four of their goals in the second half.
It is safe to say that it’s all to play for in Group E.
Unai Emery celebrated his one-year anniversary at the club on Tuesday, meaning it’s a good time to reflect on just how far we’ve come and to take a moment to thank Emery for everything he has done for the club. We just love to see European football back, don’t we?
But it will be all business on Thursday.
Villa come into this one full of confidence. Unbeaten in four games in all competitions having scored 12 and only conceded three thanks largely to the 6-1 thrashing of Brighton and the 4-1 win over West Ham United last time out.
Over the recent group stage fixtures, we have seen major squad rotation. The win over Zrinjski saw Emery start with a midfield three of Leander Dendoncker, Youri Tielemans, and John McGinn. The only one of the trio who is getting regular football is captain McGinn.
However, we could see a stronger team being put out by Emery given that AZ Alkmaar should not be underestimated.
De Kaasboeren sit second in the Eredivisie and remain unbeaten, having won eight and drawn one of their nine games in the Dutch league. Their record is only outmatched by a PSV side who have won all their opening nine league fixtures.
Alongside this impressive league record, AZ have scored 25 goals (two more than Villa) and have only conceded four. Pascal Jansen’s men are unbeaten in 11 home fixtures. Funnily enough, I know a certain team who have 11 home wins on the bounce.
One man the Villa backline will have to be aware of is Greek striker Pavlidis, who has started the Eredivisie season in red-hot form, scoring 13 goals and gaining one assist in the opening nine games.
This game could come down to a striker shoot-out, with Ollie Watkins looking to be in the form of his career, with five goals and five assists in the Premier League campaign and a hat-trick against Hibernian in the UECL playoffs too.
This game is crucial if we want to advance to the knockout stages of the competition. These two sides should be the ones, realistically, making it out of the group stage, even if recent fixtures have gone against this theory.
AZ will be without talented young winger Mayckel Lahdo after he was shown a straight red card in the last UECL fixture against Legia.
Lahdo’s suspension could pave the way for Tiago Dantas to gain a start.
Alkmaar will also be without Mees de Wit who has a foot problem and will also be without Sem Westerveld who is currently dealing with a knee issue.
Villa remain without long-term absentees Tyrone Mings and Emiliano Buendia.
The only other injury concerns for the Villa are Alex Moreno and homegrown talent, Jacob Ramsey.
AZ Alkmaar (4-2-3-1)
Ryan; Sugawara, Bazoer, Penetra, Wolfe; Clasie, Mijnans; de Wit, Sadiq, van Brederode; Pavlidis
Ason Villa (4-2-3-1)
Martinez; Cash, Lenglet, Konsa, Digne; Douglas Luiz, Tielemans; McGinn, Bailey, Diaby; Watkins
Villa should have learned their lesson from the away trip to Legia Warszawa and will hopefully not allow themselves to feel threatened or overawed by a hostile home crowd. Of course, we know that Villa are statistically and visually better when playing at Villa Park, but their attacking threat and defensive solidity should see us walk away with all three points. Douglas Luiz did not start the game against Zrinjski and when he entered the pitch, we saw a change in momentum. The Brazilian starting this match could be vital to Villa. Watkins will continue his goalscoring form, but Villa’s back line will have to be focused throughout the entirety of the 90 minutes if they want to minimize the danger shown by Pavlidis.
Prediction: AZ Alkmaar 0 Aston Villa 2