Martinez penalty heroics take Villa to Conference League semis

Lille’s Brazilian defender #31 Ismaily (R) fights for the ball with Aston Villa’s French midfielder #19 Moussa Diaby during the UEFA Europa Conference League quarter-final second leg football match between Lille and Aston Villa at Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Villeneuve-d’Ascq,, northern France on April 18, 2024. AFP

Emiliano Martinez starred in a drama-filled penalty shootout as Aston Villa squeezed past Lille and into the Europa Conference League semi-finals on Thursday following a late Matty Cash goal in normal time.

Villa led 2-1 from last week’s first leg but their quest for a first European trophy since 1982 looked doomed when goals from Yusuf Yazici and Benjamin Andre put Lille two up on the night and 3-2 ahead in the tie in northern France.

A defensive mishap allowed Cash to bring Villa even with three minutes left though before Martinez, displaying his trademark dark arts, saved twice in the shootout as Unai Emery’s side won 4-3 in the shootout.

“He is very important for us. He has his personality and his personality in the dressing room is very important because he is a leader with his experiences. He has a really brilliant mentality,” said Emery.

“And then on the pitch he has his personality and he played fantastic. He saved two penalty shots so of course I am very proud of him. I am very proud of all the players.”

The Argentina goalkeeper saved spot-kicks from Nabil Bentaleb and Andre after being whistled loudly throughout the game by a crowd that had not forgotten his celebrations after the 2022 World Cup final win over France.

There was a confusing moment during the shootout when he was shown a second yellow card for more antics, including pressing his finger to his lips, but rules dictate that any bookings picked up in the match are reset before penalties commence.

It was a compelling finale to an evening that began with Lille quickly erasing Villa’s advantage, making full use of the extra rest afforded to them against a side who beat Arsenal 2-0 on Sunday.

Lille start strongly

Yazici steered home 15 minutes in to haul Paulo Fonseca’s team level over the two legs before Lille captain Andre glanced in a corner midway through the second half.

But with the Ligue 1 club heading towards their first major European semi-final, a defensive mix-up in the closing minutes proved costly.

Cash hammered the ball home to bring Villa even at 3-3 on aggregate after Lille goalkeeper Lucas Chevalier spilled a looping cross following a collision with Bentaleb.

Chevalier redeemed himself with a sensational save from Douglas Luiz in extra time, reacting sharply to scoop the Brazilian’s header over the crossbar after parrying a powerful shot from Leon Bailey.

But Martinez had the final say in the shootout after Chevalier saved Bailey’s attempt, with Villa moving on to face Olympiakos or Fenerbahce in the last four.

Last season’s runners-up Fiorentina sealed a return to the semi-finals with a 2-0 win over 10-man Viktoria Plzen after extra time.

Cadu was sent off in the second half for a foul on the edge of the Plzen box and Fiorentina made the extra man count when Nico Gonzalez struck in the 92nd minute.

Skipper Cristiano Biraghi added a second on 108 minutes as the Italians progressed 2-0 on aggregate.

Spanish striker Ferran Jutgla got both goals for Club Brugge in a 2-0 win in Greece as the Belgians eased through 3-0 over the two legs.

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