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27 Aug 2010

For the second time in two seasons, Aston Villa's Europa League ambitions were snuffed out by a second-half fightback from Rapid Vienna.

Gabriel Agbonlahor gave Villa the early advantage with a clinical finish.

Vienna hit back through Atdhe Nuhiu, but Emile Heskey restored Villa's lead after a Stiliyan Petrov penalty miss.

Villa were to have the edge for barely a minute, though, Mario Sonnleitner heading Vienna level before substitute Rene Gartler put the visitors through.

To compound Villa's torment in losing to Vienna again - this time last year, it was Nikica Jelavic who scored a decisive late goal at Villa Park - Heskey was guilty of an abysmal miss as he followed up the rebound from Petrov's penalty.

With the goal at his mercy, the former England man contrived to scuff his shot into the ground and over the bar.

It was the stuff of nightmares for Kevin MacDonald, whose caretaker tenure of Villa is fast descending into turmoil.

Reluctantly cast in the role following Martin O'Neill's resignation, MacDonald has said he is unsure if he wants it permanently. After this result, which follows hard on the heels of Sunday's 6-0 mauling at Newcastle, he may no longer have the luxury of choice.

For those of a claret-and-blue persuasion, Villa's second-half implosion must have been all the more painful for the promise which preceded it.

After events at St James' Park, Villa might have been forgiven for starting cautiously. Instead, they showed an adventure which swiftly dispelled any doubts about their collective state of mind.

Barely a minute had passed when Ashley Young slotted an incisive ball through the Rapid Vienna defence for Agbonlahor, who tested goalkeeper Raimund Hedl with a low effort across goal.

It set the tone for an effervescent early display from Young, who added to Hedl's discomfort with a curving free-kick, and then combined devastatingly with Agbonlahor to hand Villa the initiative.

Released along the right by Stephen Ireland, the fleet-footed winger calmly steered a first-time ball into the six-yard box, where Agbonlahor slid in ahead of Sonnleitner to score.

Unfortunately for MacDonald and Villa, the Young-Agbonlahor axis was derailed soon afterwards.

Having picked up a knock which he tried and failed to shake off, Agbonlahor was forced off with the interval approaching, robbing Young of his initial zest and Villa of their chief goal threat.

Yet with Vienna struggling to make an impression offensively - two first-half efforts from Yasin Pehlivan posed a greater threat to Birmingham's bird population than Brad Guzan's goal - there seemed little immediate cause for concern.

That feeling grew stronger after the interval when Agbonlahor's replacement, Marc Albrighton, made a weaving run through the Austrian defence before firing wide.

But almost immediately, Veli Kavlak swung a right-wing cross into the danger area and Nuhiu - who also scored for Vienna in the first leg - rose to head home, silencing Villa Park.

They quickly rediscovered their voices when Young went down in the area under a challenge from Markus Katzer, but the Dutch referee, Eric Braamhaar, was rightly unmoved.

He was in more generous mood when Heskey was subsequently felled by Sonnleitner, but both Petrov - whose spot kick was pushed away by Hedl - and Heskey looked the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.

Atonement comes in various guises, and when Vienna failed to clear a corner five minutes later, Heskey looked to have made amends, the ball rebounding in off his midriff from a Habib Beye drive.

But having equalised in fortuitous circumstances, Villa were once again unable to maintain their lead.

Three minutes later, Stefan Hoffmann sent in a corner from the right, and Sonnleitner stooped to guide home a header at the near post.

Now behind on away goals, Villa's European hopes - and, perhaps, MacDonald's job prospects - were hanging by a thread.

There was to be no happy ending; instead, two Vienna substitutes combined to confirm MacDonald's misery. Christoper Trimmel wrong-footed the Villa defence with a precise centre to the far post, and Gartler was on hand to stab home.


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