Aston Villa 2-1 Brighton: Emery's side qualify for Conference League
Aston Villa ended a 13-year European exile after a nervy 2-1 win over Brighton.
First-half strikes from Douglas Luiz and Ollie Watkins ensured Villa finished seventh in the Premier League meaning they will play in the Europa Conference League next season.
Deniz Undav pulled one back — having also had a goal disallowed for offside — but the Seagulls were unable to find a leveller.
Seventh represents a triumph for Villa boss Unai Emery, having taken over a relegation-threatened side in October following Steven Gerrard’s sacking.
Villa have been transformed, booking their highest Premier League finish for 13 years, and with it a route into the Europa Conference League.
The Seagulls, in Sky Bet League One 12 years ago, are heading to Europe for the first time following their historic season.
A few weeks ago the Villa Park finale looked to be a straight shootout for a final European spot yet Brighton had already sealed sixth and the Europa League so all eyes were on the hosts.
It did not take long for them to threaten when Jacob Ramsey rampaged down the left and crossed for Leon Bailey to strike the bar from eight yards after four minutes.
It was a warning – one Brighton did not heed – as four minutes later Villa grabbed the opener.
Again, Ramsey was the architect when he was given too much time on the left to pick out the unmarked Luiz to guide in low from 15 yards.
The Seagulls then wasted a chance to hit back immediately when Evan Ferguson was sent clear but he blazed over.
Roberto De Zerbi’s side refused to go quietly and were denied a leveller by a tight VAR call after 19 minutes when Julio Ensico’s cross was turned in by Undav, only for the provider to be ruled offside.
There had been more than enough to suggest Brighton would cause Villa problems – only for the hosts to double their lead after 26 minutes.
John McGinn won the ball in midfield and Bailey sent Ramsey scampering towards goal with Watkins in support.
Ramsey looked like had overrun the ball as Jason Steele came out, only to prod past the goalkeeper to give Watkins the easiest of finishes.
Boubacar Kamara’s last-gasp challenge denied Ferguson an instant reply before Brighton pulled a goal back seven minutes before the break.
Villa were caught napping from Pascal Gross’ quick free-kick and Undav darted clear to hook past Emi Martinez, the goal confirmed after a VAR check.
From a position of strength, Villa were nervous and needed Martinez to deny Undav a leveller just before the break.
Luiz nearly eased that anxiety seven minutes into the second half when his corner clipped the bar before Alexis Mac Allister drilled wide at the other end.
An open game continued to offer openings and it was Ramsey who missed the best of the lot after 56 minutes.
Bailey’s cross found the onrushing midfielder unmarked at the far post only for him to sky over from five yards.
It should have sealed the game, instead Brighton remained in the contention and with Kaoru Mitoma off the bench to cause problems.
Yet, despite finding good positions, the Seagulls failed to test Martinez and it was Steele who grabbed Watkins’ header to deny Villa a third before Lucas Digne curled a late free-kick wide.