'Emery the star of the show as Villa can taste dream finale'

The stage was set for Aston Villa to make history as Hollywood superstar and celebrity fan Tom Hanks was paraded pitchside in the unfamiliar role of Champions League cheerleader before the meeting with Liverpool.

Hanks, a well-known celebrity Villa fan and clad in a claret and blue sweater, pointed out at great volume what Unai Emery and his players were on the brink of achieving after a superb season under the Spaniard’s management.

After a night of tension and drama that saw Hanks go through his full range of emotions from undisguised anguish to wild celebration, Emery and Villa can now almost reach out and touch their dream.

Emery's side certainly took the scenic route to move a step closer to sealing a place in the Premier League's top four – a point from a wild 3-3 draw with Liverpool still leaving work to be done but with the goal in sight.

They got part of the way there as a game that started with a truly horrible error from goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to gift Harvey Elliott a goal concluded with a thunderous grandstand finish in front of the Holte End as two late goals from substitute Jhon Duran earned a vital point, leaving Hanks wildly pumping his fists in delight.

It puts Tottenham Hotspur in the unenviable position of having to beat reigning champions and title-chasing Manchester City at home on Tuesday night to push the race for next season's Champions League to the final day.

Villa are five points clear of Spurs with one game left and have a significantly superior goal difference. Life looks difficult for Ange Postecoglou and his players now.

What looked like a potentially damaging defeat was celebrated in the manner of a glorious victory, Emery greeted like a conquering hero, grabbing the microphone to deliver a rousing cry of “Up The Villa”, the same message delivered by Hanks prior to the start.

He also told Villa fans: “Today we didn’t finish. The last match is at Crystal Palace on Sunday to get to the end, to play Champions League. This is very important for us, the club, the players, me.”

Villa will fancy their chances of achieving their target and what an achievement it would be for Emery, who has transformed the mood and style of the club since succeeding sacked Steven Gerrard in October 2022.

Tactically astute and seemingly invested in every kick from his technical area, he is close to guiding his team into the previously unknown territory of the Champions League. This would be another superb achievement on an already impressive C.V.

After acting as a catalyst to spearhead the Midlands side into the Europa Conference League at the end of his truncated first season, many supporters would have been happy for Emery to simply take the next step into the Europa League.

Instead, he stands on the edge of taking them into Europe’s elite, the sixth club he will have taken into the Champions League. He also has the best win rate of any Villa manager in the Premier League and since his appointment they sit fourth on points gained behind Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.

The appointment of Emery was a clear signal of the club's ambition but even the most optimistic member of the hierarchy would not have envisaged a potential Champions League place so soon. The impact has been dramatic.

Villa are unquestionably running close to empty, as was seen in their Europa Conference League semi-final exit to Olympiakos, but sheer spirit and refusal to accept defeat saw them through to a point against a freewheeling Liverpool who created chances but always looked vulnerable at the back.

For all their frailties and fatigue, Villa kept coming at Liverpool to score those two late goals, even threatening to win it in nine minutes of added time – a result that would have ended all arguments about fourth place.

Their rise under Emery will also give hope to those fearing the top four will always be a closed shop, following on from Newcastle United’s example last season in gatecrashing the so-called established order.

Hanks may be the legendary global figure who sometimes sprinkles his stardust on Villa Park but even he might acknowledge Emery is the star of this show.

Now Villa will hope their resurgent Premier League season will get the perfect Hollywood finale with a place at Europe’s top table.