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Aston Villa 4-0 Ajax: Unai Emery's side move into Europa Conference League quarter-finals

Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring a goal for Aston Villa

Aston Villa thrashed Ajax at a raucous Villa Park to move into the Europa Conference League quarter-finals - their first appearance in the last eight of a major European competition since 1998.

Goals from Ollie Watkins, Leon Bailey, substitute Jhon Duran and Moussa Diaby sealed a thoroughly-deserved victory on a memorable night for the Villa fans.

After it finished 0-0 in the first leg in the Netherlands, Watkins scored his 22nd club goal of the season in all competitions when he superbly headed in Douglas Luiz's right-wing corner in the 25th minute.

However, the England striker, named earlier on Thursday in Gareth Southgate's Three Lions squad for the Wembley friendlies against Brazil and Belgium, went off in the 33rd minute with an injury.

Four-time European champions Ajax nearly scored an equaliser in the fifth minute of first-half injury time, but Matty Cash did excellently to clear Brian Brobbey's effort off the line with keeper Emiliano Martinez well beaten.

Ajax were captained by England midfielder Jordan Henderson in his first club match in the country since leaving Liverpool last summer to join Saudi Arabian side Al-Ettifaq, only to then move to Ajax in January.

But Henderson lost possession in the build-up to Villa's second goal, with Bailey producing great skill and two stepovers to create space before drilling into the net.

Ajax had midfielder Sivert Mannsverk sent off for two bookable offences in the 66th minute and Duran blasted in a third goal, with the ball going in off the underside of the crossbar. Diaby slotted in a fourth nine minutes from time to confirm their progress.

The draw for the Europa Conference League quarter-finals, semi-finals and final will all take place on Friday, 15 March from 13:00 GMT at Uefa's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland and you can follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.

Euro star Emery guides Villa to memorable night

Unai Emery has won the Europa League on four occasions in his career - three times with Sevilla (2014, 2015 and 2016) and once with Villarreal (2021) - and also took Arsenal to the final in 2019.

This result continues his incredible job at Villa, who were only out of the Premier League relegation zone on goal difference when they sacked Steven Gerrard and brought in the Spaniard. Emery won 15 of his 25 league matches to take the club up to seventh and back in Europe after a 13-year absence.

But Villa, European Cup winners, in 1982, will now be playing in a major European quarter-final for the first time since going out on away goals in the last eight of the Uefa Cup against Atletico Madrid 26 years ago.

Before the game, Emery called the match "another wonderful opportunity against one of the biggest and most historic clubs in European football", adding "this is what Villa Park was made for".

He urged the fans to play their part, and they certainly did with the match played in a superb atmosphere at a sold-out stadium.

After a pre-game interactive live show, pitchside flame-throwers and fireworks to build up the frenzy among the home fans, Villa were the better side and had seen Bailey and Diaby go close before Watkins scored.

The striker had earlier needed lengthy treatment after he slid in and caught visiting goalkeeper Diant Ramaj, with Watkins only able to continue after his left leg and knee was heavily strapped up.

But Watkins, who has scored three goals in nine appearances for England, still had time to make his mark.

He took his goal superbly but not long afterwards had to be helped off the pitch by Bailey, with both Champions-League chasing Villa and England hoping his injury is not a serious one, especially with the Euro 24 starting in exactly three months' time.

Watkins' replacement, Duran, shot just wide with two efforts, before Villa ran riot with three second-half goals to seal their passage into the next round.

A tough return to England for Henderson

Henderson and uncapped Ezri Konsa were also named in the England squad, although Konsa did not feature at Villa Park as he was suspended following a red card in the first leg in the Netherlands.

Henderson, with 81 England caps, was booed every time he touched the ball by the home fans, who also chanted about him being 'greedy' in reference to his Saudi move.

It has been a struggle so far in the Netherlands for the 33-year-old, who captained Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2019. He has now played eight times for Ajax and won only once, with five draws and two losses.

He played a delightful first-time ball over the top only for Brobbey to be denied by excellent defending, but was also crucially robbed of possession before Villa's second goal as it turned out to be a painful evening for the England man.

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