Emery’s side make an early impact
Unai Emery’s Aston Villa are riding the crest of a domestic wave, after bouncing back from their 3-2 opening group game defeat to Legia Warsaw, with successive wins away at Chelsea and at home to Brighton & Hove Albion last time out in the Premier League.
The 6-1 hammering of Roberto De Zerbi’s side on Saturday lifted the Villans up to fifth in the standings by the end of the weekend, and was the sort of result and performance that had fans dreaming of potentially remaining in the top five come the season’s end.
Despite Emery’s prior track record in cup competitions, Villa have fallen flat in every cup game since the Basque coach arrived.
In 2023/24, the loss in Poland to Warsaw was followed by a Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Everton, as much changed XI’s have struggled with being thrown together after limited game time for individual players.
Villa will be desperate to take the first step on the road to reversing these fortunes, by getting their first points on the board in Group E in front of an expectant Villa Park crowd on Thursday.
Zrinjski lead an emerging nation
Based in the previously war-torn city of Mostar, which was bombed during the 1990s Croat-Bosniak conflict, HSK Zrinjski are Bosnia’s oldest club and the one of the country’s shining lights on the European stage alongside SK Sarajevo from the capital city, having competed in the Europa League in the 2010s.
Luka Modric played for the club on loan from Dinamo Zagreb in the 2003-04 season alongside his Croatian compatriats Marko Janjetovic, Ivica Dzidic and Davor Landeka.
The visitors caused the shock of the opening matchday by recovering from a 3-0 half-time deficit against AZ Alkmaar to triumph 4-3 in a whirlwind second-half blitz. Two defeats for the early favourites in Group E have blown the table wide open going in the second round.
The Bosnian champions will be targeting their home form, with the desire to progress to the knockout stages, having won 14 of their 17 matches at the
stadium en route to winning the title last season.
As a result, a glamour tie away at a Premier League side will be seen as a bonus, but one that they deserve to be playing in, nonetheless.
As Legia did two weeks ago, they will be aiming to bridge the gap in quality between the teams by winning their individual battles across the pitch over the 90 minutes.
Zrinjski who are on their maiden campaign in the group stage, after being knocked out in the playoff round last season, will also sense an opportunity to consolidate their position in the group with another maximum points haul here.
Head coach Krenoslav Rendulic and his players aim to break more ground by reaching the knockout stage of a European competition for the first time in the club’s history.
Unai Emery has the usual selection dilemma around the full use of his squad amidst his side’s excellent league form and the local derby with Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday.
The loss to Legia may force his hand somewhat, with a win now of paramount importance.
Therefore, the back four and goalkeeper may see little rotation with the fit-again Diego Carlos possibly in line for a start alongside Pau Torres, in order to give the ever-present Ezri Konsa the night off.
Emiliano Martinez should retain his place between the sticks in order to add further continuity and reliabiity.
Leander Dendoncker may play in the number six position alongside Dougas Luiz, with Boubacar Kamara not recovering in time from Saturday’s win at Villa Park.
Nicolo Zaniolo and Jhon Duran are also set to feature in the XI once again for Villa after the pair linked up well two weeks ago. Jacob Ramsey will miss out after suffering a reoccurrence of the same injury.
Despite his hat-trick heroics at the weekend, England hopeful Ollie Watkins will be kept in reserve for the trip to Molineux.
Villa may see the return of Leon Bailey on Thursday evening following a thigh injury, but that will likely be a game-time decision.
Alex Moreno, on the other hand, remains sidelined following the hamstring injury he suffered in May.
Emiliano Buendia and Tyrone Mings remain long-term absentees with cruciate ligament ruptures.
Zrinjski will line up in a narrow 4-3-3, with captain Nemanja Bilbija, who has scored 98 goals in 123 appearances leading the line alongside Mayckel Lahdo and Mario Cuze.
Antonio Ivancic, Andrija Balic and Dario Canadjija will form a midfield three whilst Fortuna Sittard loanee Stipe Radic will replace Marin Magdic in defence.
Magdic has been out since May 2022 with an unspecified injury.
Aston Villa (4-2-2-2)
Martinez; Cash, Carlos, Torres, Digne; Dendoncker, Luiz; Ramsey, McGinn; Zaniolo, Duran
HSK Zrinjski (4-3-3)
Maric; Corluka, Radic, Jakovljevic, Memija; Ivancic, Balic, Canadjija; Cuze, Bilbija, Ticinovic
Villa Park has played a massive role in Villa’s stunning recent league form, with 10 consecutive Premier League wins at B6 only just in the rearview mirror.
The confidence-fuelling home comforts should see Emery’s side over the line against their talented and no doubt fired up visitors.
Prediction: Aston Villa 3 HSK Zrinjski 1