By James Murray

25th Oct, 2023 | 5:30pm

Nicolo Zaniolo axed by Unai Emery in three changes - Aston Villa predicted XI v AZ

Nicolo Zaniolo could be axed by Unai Emery as Aston Villa prepare to face AZ Alkmaar on Thursday (26 October).

The Italian international played 76 minutes in the 4-1 victory over West Ham on Sunday (22 October), but the 24-year-old attacker’s performance wasn’t good enough for him to start again in the Europa Conference League clash.

While the Villa boss will be looking to name a similar side to the one that saw off the Hammers, he will be keen to use the opportunity to hand some fringe players a chance to impress in the Netherlands.

The Villans come into the game sitting bottom of Group E, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, as each of the four teams are on three points from their opening two matches.

With the trip to Alkmaar largely viewed as Emery’s side’s toughest group fixture, they will be keen to pick up a statement victory on the road.

That is why the Spaniard is predicted to make just three changes to his starting lineup in a bid to slightly freshen things up from the side that convincingly beat West Ham.

Emiliano Martinez will once again continue in between the sticks as he looks to build upon his decent performance against the Hammers, where the keeper made three saves and the only shot that made its way past him was a deflected effort from Jarrod Bowen [SofaScore].

The Argentine also recorded a 97 per cent pass success rate as just one of his 30 attempts went astray, and that will be an important avenue to build from the back against AZ.

On the right-hand side of the defence in a back four, Matty Cash will retain his place after making five successful targets and winning 70 per cent of his duels on the ground against West Ham.

Diego Carlos will return to the starting lineup alongside him in central defence, where he will be looking to show Emery why he should be more involved after making just five starts this season. The Brazilian will replace Ezri Konsa, who won all six of his ground duels at the weekend.

Pau Torres will drop to the bench after he only came out on top in 40 per cent of the duels he was involed in against the Irons, with Clement Lenglet handed the chance to impress from the start in Alkmaar.

Lucas Digne will continue in his role at left-back as Alex Moreno is unlikely to be fit for the fixture. The Frenchman will be looking to be more accurate with his crosses, having failed to find a teammate with any of his seven balls into the box on Sunday.

Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz once again proved their importance in the Villa engine room at the weekend, so Emery will ask the pair to go again in midfield for the Europa Conference League clash. The latter will be looking to build upon his superb performance at the weekend, having scored twice for his side.

Captain John McGinn will continue in that floating role between the midfield and attack. The Scotsman will be hoping pick up where he left off in the competition after scoring a 94th minute winner against Zrinjski earlier on this month.

Zaniolo will drop out of the starting lineup, having had just 35 touches and failing to have a shot on target against the Hammers. He will be replaced by Leon Bailey, who came off the bench to record a 100 per cent pass success rate and pick out the top corner with an expert finish in the 89th minute.

Playing in behind the forward will be Moussa Diaby once again. After a bright start to life at Villa Park, the Frenchman is on a seven-game goal drought, which he will be hoping to end when he comes up against the Dutch side.

Ollie Watkins will continue to lead the line and look to build on his impress recent form, having scored eight goals – including one against the Irons – and registering five assists in 14 appearances this season. The Englishman had four shots at the weekend and will be hoping to continue to be a threat against AZ.

In other Aston Villa news, the club are plotting a move for a Euro forward following a stand-off over his contract.