Aston Villa are back on the European stage
This season, across the Premier League, emphasised the value of having a top-class manager that the squad and the fan base alike are all completely behind, with Aston Villa a prime example of this thesis.
Rewind to 20 October and Villa have just been smashed 3-0 at Craven Cottage, leaving them 17th in the table, having won just two of 11 fixtures so far.
Manager Steven Gerrard was sacked before he’d even got on the coach back to Birmingham; bit awkward.
Three days later, under interim boss Aaron Danks, the Villans demolished Brentford 4-0, emphasising the extent to which Gerrard’s dismissal had lifted the mood in the dressing room.
Following a week of negotiations with Villarreal, Unai Emery was finally unveiled as the new manager, masterminding wins over Manchester United and Brighton immediately prior to the World Cup break.
Then, between New Year’s Day and the end of April, the Claret and Blue Army won 11 of 17 matches, losing just three, with a ten-game unbeaten streak propelling them from mid-table dwellers into European contenders.
Villa’s 3-0 victory over Newcastle in mid-April, ending the Magpies’ own undefeated run, the moment everyone sat up and took notice of what was going on in the Midlands.
Their last three fixtures of the season were Tottenham (H), Liverpool (A) and Brighton (H), facing their three direct rivals for European qualification.
Nevertheless, Emery’s team swatted aside Spurs, came agonisingly close to a victory at Anfield before beating Brighton 2-1 on the final day.
The latter sparked euphoric celebrations at Villa Park, as it saw them cling onto seventh spot, thereby ending the club’s 13-year exile from UEFA competition.
Of course, they were European Cup winners in 1982, but Villa’s sole appearance in a modern-day UEFA group stage came in 2008, beaten in qualifiers in the two subsequent season, both times by Rapid Wien.
Next season, Villa will enter the Europa Conference League play-off round, with the draw taking place on 7 August, before the two-legged tie is played later that month, on the 24th and 31st.
Their tally of 18 wins is the most Aston Villa have managed in a top-division season since 1995/96, finishing fourth and lifting the League Cup back then.
It has been an astonishing turnaround for the Claret and Blue Army who, in the dark days that were the end of Steven Gerrard’s tenure, couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams they’d be getting their passports ready.
Will Unai Emery add to his Europa trophy collection?
Of course, Unai Emery is the master when it comes to Europa-based competitions.
He’s a four-times Europa League winning manager, more than any other man in history, also taking Arsenal to the 2019 final.
Having also led Villarreal to the Champions League semi-finals, Emery has won 29 of his last 33 two-legged European knockout ties, with two of those four defeats coming as PSG boss.
Despite the club’s lack of recent continental expirence, Villa will be amongst the early favourites to reach next season’s Europa Conference League Final at Agia Sophia Stadium in Athens on 29 May.
If they’re going to compete on multiple fronts, a bigger squad will be needed; the Villans benefited from playing one game a week pretty much all season, following defeats in the third round of both domestic cups.
It was confirmed on Wednesday that veteran Ashley Young will leave the club as his contract comes to an end.
Not too many more as set to follow him out the door, although there is interesting in World Cup winner Emi Martínez, with many big clubs searching for a new number one.
Brazilian centre-back Diego Carlos, who arrived last summer, made just three appearances before rupturing his ACL in August, but is a top-class operate and, assuming he can get fit again, will be a key player next season.