Mansfield Town succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa at One Call Stadium, but can take many positives from a good display against their Premier League opponents.
An entertaining first-half was rounded off when Alex Fisher struck for the second time in as many matches to put the Stags 1-0 up, but Villa responded after the re-start.
England international Darren Bent equalised on the hour-mark, before late goals by Gary Gardner and Bent again saw the West Midlands team emerge as 3-1 winners.
The match started at a good tempo and Mansfield, attacking towards the North Stand which housed the travelling faithful from the West Midlands, looked the livelier in the early exchanges.
Only two minutes had elapsed when an un-named Stags trialist looked up and let fly with a speculative 25-yard effort which had Shay Given watching closely, as it went narrowly over the upright.
Paul Cox’s team were on the attack again just a few moments later as Liam Marsden looped one of his trademark long-throws into the six-yard box, which the visitors managed to bundle away.
Despite such a good start, Villa – playing their first pre-season match – almost grabbed the lead against the run of play on six minutes.
It was Joe Bennett who embarked on a weaving run, tricking Martin Riley on the edge of the area with some intricate footwork to carve out a shooting angle.
His first attempt was smothered by the trialist Stags ‘keeper, but the Villa left-back seized upon the rebound and found another shooting angle which forced Riley into a goal-line clearance.
The chances continued to flow and at the other end, the hosts went close as Ollie Palmer showed good upper body strength to hold off a challenge from Ciaran Clark, though his low drive didn’t trouble Given.
Marsden, who looked very comfortable early on given his tender age, posed a constant nuisance for Villa and another of his long-throws had to be cleared away after 13 minutes.
The 18-year-old played an instrumental role in the Stags’ next attack – whipping a long ball down the right-flank for Alex Fisher to run onto, which stretched the Villa defence.
Fisher was forced to a tight angle and, ultimately, his effort was comfortably gathered by Given at his near-post and the danger was over for now at least.
As the first half wore on, Paul Lambert’s team began to exert their superiority and they enjoyed a promising spell of pressure around the half-hour mark.
Leandro Bacuna began to find success down the right flank, the Stags’ left-side, and his teasing back-post cross on 28 minutes found the head of England striker Gabby Agbonlahor, whose header went over.
Bacuna, a talented Dutch youngster who has been capped twice at Under 21 level, played another ball across the six-yard box only a few moments later, but this time nobody was able to connect.
The tricky wide man turned from creator to attacker in the next attack by the Premier League team, when he advanced inside the area to latch onto Agbonlahor’s defence-splitting pass, but he slipped at the decisive moment and screwed his effort high and wide.
At this point, some inside One Call Stadium may have felt the tide was about to completely shift in Villa’s favour, but instead, Mansfield responded with a great spell of pressure.
It all started when Fisher was fouled midway inside the visitors’ half and allowed Mansfield a free-kick, about 35 yards out, in a relatively dangerous position.
Jamie McGuire took responsibility teeing up Sam Clucas, who had came on for Fergus Bell just a few moments earlier, and the youngster’s thunderbolt shot was parried wide by a full-stretch Given.
The resulting corner was cleared at the expense of another flag-kick and this time, Clucas whipped a great ball towards the back-post where John Dempster rose high and directed a header goalwards.
Clark cleared it out – for yet another corner – and Clucas’ delivery was eventually hoofed downfield and the sustained pressure eventually faded out – much to Villa’s relief.
At the other end, Bacuna had a shot well-saved by the trialist shot-stopper, whilst Bennett tried his luck with a left-foot snap-shot from 18 yards which sailed over the upright.
What the game really needed was a goal – and on 41 minutes, Fisher duly obliged to give Mansfield the lead.
Marsden provided the assist with one of his trademark long-throws towards the near-post, which was flicked on by Dempster and then slammed home at the near-post.
The goal was a good reward for the Stags’ efforts and desire showed during the first half, and they led 1-0 at the break.
As is customary in pre-season trialists, numerous substitutions were made at the break. Villa changed their entire XI, giving boss Lambert and new assistant Roy Keane a chance to cast their eye over the entire squad, whilst Mansfield made three – with Rhead, Howell and Amari’i Bell for Palmer and two trialists, respectively.
The second-half didn’t produce as much goalmouth action as the first half, but it was still a good spectacle for the 3,000-strong crowd who turned out to watch the match.
Mansfield sensed an opportunity to double their one-goal advantage seven minutes after the re-start when Rhead connected to a loose ball deep on the inside-left, cut inside and played across goal.
Clucas had taken up a great position in the centre of the six-yard box and would have tapped into an empty net had goalkeeper Jed Steer not reacted instinctively to palm the ball away at the feet of the striker, whom he collided with.
At the other end, Gary Gardner tried his luck with a 25-yard free-kick which he curled harmlessly wide of the right-hand post, and in hindsight could have done much better with.
There was then a moment of major concern for everyone connected with the home team when Clucas hobbled off with physio Chris Bowman in evident agony.
The Stags’ advantage was wiped out just after the half-hour mark as Darren Bent, now entering his fourth full season at Villa Park, drew the visitors level.
The England international tapped home at close-range, but the good work was done by Alan Hutton, who burst a lung to work his way to the by-line and provide a pin-point pull-back.
Villa stepped their efforts up a gear from this point onwards and Mansfield had to soak up plenty of pressure in the remaining 30 minutes.
The West Midlands outfit almost made inroads with a quarter-of-an-hour left to play as debutant Keiran Richardson, another international, threaded a clever ball through for Bent to run onto, but the ‘keeper was quick off his line to smother the danger.
More chances followed and Andreas Weimann began to emerge as Villa’s biggest threat – the Austrian star slipping a low pull-back towards Bent on 78 minutes, whose subsequent shot was saved on the line.
A combination of Villa’s experience and Mansfield’s tiring legs meant the Premier League outfit were always going to have the better of the closing exchanges and with just five minutes remaining they found a winner.
Bent and Weimann linked up well in a good passing exchange in the middle of their opponents’ half and eventually, Bent directed a low pass through to Gardner, who duly obliged in finding the target from close-range.
The Stags could take plenty of encouragement from their display, but the Villains struck again on the brink of added time when Bent nodded home a third goal, following more good work by Weimann.