Aston Villa made their first step towards qualifying for the UEFA Europa Conference League group stage with a dominant 5-0 victory over Hibernian in the first leg of the play-off round on Wednesday evening. The gulf in quality was clear to see as the men in claret and blue delivered a commanding display to gain a huge advantage ahead of the second leg. Unai Emery’s side hardly had to move out of first gear as they swept up with three first-half headers, an assist triple for Lucas Digne and a hat-trick of goals for Ollie Watkins.
Ahead of the game, Easter Road was in fine voice and Villa appeared to be feeling the pressure a tad with a shaky start in the first quarter of an hour or so. Although the offside trap working well in defence would suggest some strong organisation, Emery’s side just didn’t seem to be clicking going forward. Digne did have an early header on target and Moussa Diaby tried his luck from distance, but both efforts were saved easily by Hibs goalkeeper David Marshall.
Come the 17th minute, however, and the confidence finally seemed to arrive on the scene as Watkins nodded Villa in front. Whipped in by Digne from the left, the forward was able to meet the ball at the perfect height, guiding it into the far side-netting. The goal took the home crowd by surprise after a strong start for Hibs but the travelling support didn’t care as they went wild at their side’s first European goal in 13 years.
Watkins very nearly had a quickfire second in the 19th minute as John McGinn, on his return to Easter Road, dinked the ball toward the far post and the number nine, unmarked, got on the end of it. Much to the dismay of Emery on the touchline, though, Watkins’ header went well over the bar.
Hibs responded well to the opening goal once they’d composed themselves as they pressed high up the field and caused both Diego Carlos and Pau Torres to give the ball away in costly positions. There was then a huge penalty shout for the hosts as Martin Boyle was bundled over in the area by Douglas Luiz but Spanish referee Ricardo De Burgos Bengoechea waved away the protests.
The home side’s efforts went unrewarded and Easter Road went silent as Villa made it two to the good in the 33rd minute. Watkins got his second of the game with some outstanding positioning to convert from Luiz’s inswinging corner. Carlos was the man to meet it as the Brazilian nodded it into the ground and all Watkins had to do was head in from two yards.
It became a hat-trick of first-half headers in the 42nd minute as Bailey scored from a very similar position to Watkins’ second. Digne, with yet more fine work down the left flank, ran onto a McGinn through ball and chipped it to the far post where Bailey was waiting to convert. Cruising and three in front, the away support cheered “can we play you every week” and “Johnson what’s the score”. The chants were well-received in the press box, at least by the Villa reporters.
Hibs showed a little more going forward immediately after the break as Robin Olsen, who was brought on at half time for Emi Martinez, was forced into an early stop. It was to no avail, however, as Villa went up the other end and made it 4-0. The Video Assistant Referee was needed to secure the four-goal margin but Watkins, after originally being flagged offside, wheeled off in celebration for his third of the game. The England international tapped home from a Digne cross to hand the Frenchman a third assist of the match.
Emery turned to the bench a little beyond the hour mark to rest Watkins, Bailey and Kamara while handing minutes to Youri Tielemans, Jhon Duran and Bertrand Traore. The latter made an instant impact as he took down a pinged pass brilliantly and danced into the penalty area to win a spot kick. Luiz, stepping up just like he did against Everton, passed the ball into the bottom left-hand corner with ease to give Villa a 5-0 lead. The gas was well and truly stepped off in the closing stages as the Villans cruised to victory. Flick through the pages for our player ratings.