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McGinn and Diaby ease Aston Villa past Luton – with a little help from Lockyer

The last time Emiliano Martínez scored a late own goal, after the ball rebounded off the woodwork and in off the back of his head, Aston Villa were unlucky to lose to Arsenal. Since then, however, Unai Emery’s team have been just about perfect at Villa Park, winning all 12 Premier League games, scoring 34 times in the process. The Argentina goalkeeper’s misfortune on this occasion, after Ezri Konsa had nonchalantly headed against his own bar with Villa three goals to the good, was the only blip on an afternoon when Villa barely had to break sweat to consolidate fifth place.

Especially once Villa went ahead, through John McGinn’s fourth goal of the season in the 17th minute, the match resembled more of a training game of attack versus defence than an equitable top-flight contest. The mismatch between these sides who were four divisions apart only nine years ago was epitomised by the Luton fans predicting wryly: “Conference champions, you’ll never sing that.”

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Villa face Nottingham Forest, Fulham and Bournemouth inside their next four league games, albeit with Europa Conference home games and a trip to Tottenham in between, before they entertain Manchester City. So are they the real deal? Can Villa compare with the elite? “Ask me after we’ve played Man City,” Rob Edwards, Luton’s admiring manager and a former Villa player, said. “They’re certainly looking to be competing around that [top four] sort of level.”

After an encouraging run of five points from five games, Edwards could be fairly satisfied with Luton’s damage-limitation job before the interval, but admitted: “There is a gulf between the teams. Villa are a brilliant team, full of confidence, with a great manager. So to be 3-0 down after an hour was a difficult moment. It was a difficult afternoon but I’m proud we finished strongly.”

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Emery’s team have taken 71 points from 35 league matches since he took over a year and a week ago. “We are winning games because we are very focused,” the Villa manager said but pinpointed when he expects to judge his team’s improvement. “We lost to Newcastle 5-1 and Liverpool 3-0 and they were better than us,” he said.

“That is the reality when we play the top teams. Hopefully we can reduce the distance between us and them. When we lost against Newcastle and Liverpool I told the players that I want to reduce the distance between us and them in those matches when we play them at home. In those matches, we will show whether it’s possible or not.”

Luton soon defaulted to their 5-4-1 shape, allowing Villa to flicker between a narrow 4-4-2 when out of possession and the 3-4-3 that has done for far better-resourced sides this season. Nicolò Zaniolo volleyed wide from close range after being teed up by Ollie Watkins, then Thomas Kaminski made a sharp double save from the England striker after he seemed certain to convert Matty Cash’s superb low ball across the face of the six-yard box.

Moussa Diaby accepts the congratulations of Boubacar Kamara, left, and Matty Cash after scoring Aston Villa’s second goalMoussa Diaby accepts the congratulations of Boubacar Kamara, left, and Matty Cash after scoring Aston Villa’s second goal. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/Shutterstock

McGinn’s goal came from a slick set-piece routine. Douglas Luiz laid the ball back towards the penalty spot where Moussa Diaby dummied and McGinn teed himself up to crack in a right-footed shot.

Emery, wanting more width to help Villa penetrate, introduced Leon Bailey for the cautioned Zaniolo at the interval and was rewarded within four minutes. The substitute, who had also scored in Thursday’s 4-1 Europa Conference win at AZ Alkmaar, headed back Lucas Digne’s cross for Diaby to snap home a crisp left-footed half-volley.

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Then Boubacar Kamara emerged from his hybrid holding midfielder/ third centre-back role to play a delightful channel ball for Diaby. He played a pass towards the waiting Watkins but Tom Lockyer intervened, unfortunately touching the ball over his own line.

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When Luton did string a few passes together in their own half, Villa fans started chanting: “We want our ball back.” The home team were so comfortable that maintaining sharp focus for 90 minutes did prove too challenging. When one Luton substitute, Andros Townsend, crossed towards another, Elijah Adebayo, Konsa casually headed the ball back towards Martínez – only to see it go over his own goalkeeper’s head, hit the crossbar and rebound in off the Argentinian. But when you’ve already started the season by scoring 20 goals in five straight home wins, perhaps such nonchalance is understandable.