The Villans progressed into the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup on Tuesday and if there is one player who should receive the entire plaudits, it is the goalkeeper, Brad Guzan. The American goalkeeper faced a total of five penalties in the game – four of which he saved expertly. And if this was not enough, Guzan was on form throughout the game pulling off a series of fine saves, in particular a one-on-one effort from Kieran Richardson, which prevented Sunderland winning the game deep into extra time.
The goalless score line reflected the fact that the teams themselves were evenly matched with both sides having chances to break the deadlock. Whilst Steve Bruce’s side constantly pushed forward for an opening goal, the Villans played their usual counter-attacking football and the pace of their movement exposed the Sunderland defence. Martin O’Neill’s unchanged back four all put in an assured performance throughout the game, frustrating both Bruce and the Sunderland strikers. On 83 minutes, Carlos Cuellar was harshly penalised for a handball and as a result he gave the Black Cats a valuable chance to score from the spot. However, Brad Guzan was to cap off his display in goal with a vital penalty stop from Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones. From this it appeared as though both luck and skill were on Guzan’s side and he followed up this stop with three more saves in a fairly one-sided penalty shootout.
After the game, O’Neill was quick to express his delight with his goalkeeper: “His was a fabulous, fantastic performance. He’s got everything and he’s as brave as they come. Friedel has been terrific for us but Guzan was immense tonight. I can’t remember the last time a keeper saved four penalties but, by the end, I was almost expecting him to save them.” Having said this, O’Neill gave no indication on what role he would be giving his second-choice goalkeeper after two fine consecutive Carling Cup performances. While Friedel still remains Villa’s number one keeper, Guzan will definitely have a part in the Carling Cup for as long as the Villans remain in the competition. However, it will be very hard for O’Neill to just forget about Guzan’s performance and he could be faced with a dilemma when choosing which shot-stopper to play in his starting XI. With the FA Cup around the corner, it seems as though the Villa manager will play Guzan just as he has done in the Carling Cup, leaving Premier League duties to the more experienced Brad Friedel.
On the other end of the pitch Emile Heskey was given his first start of the season for the club, replacing John Carew upfront. However, apart from a header in the early stages of the game, Heskey’s performance was fairly limited and he failed to make an impression. Gabriel Agbonlahor was equally ineffective in front of goal, but still much livelier than his fellow striking partner. However, the Villa strikers cannot be criticised alone for their less-than impressive performances as the Sunderland defence closed down and kept the Villa attack at bay. Despite having nine shots on goal, it will be Sunderland who will be ruing their missed chances.
A problem that has plagued Villa recently is that when one area of the team looks promising, another fails to impress. This was exactly the case on Tuesday – the Villa defence and goalkeeper had an exceptional game whereas the midfield and the forwards failed to create many decent chances on goal. For the Villans to truly succeed in this competition, O’Neill will have to find the balance in his squad as soon as possible for both the Carling Cup and the Premier League. As O’Neill waits for the Carling Cup quarter-final draw this weekend, he will no doubt be wary of the possible teams his squad could face. Whilst he will be hoping to be drawn with the likes of Portsmouth or Blackburn, the possible challenge of Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United could get in the way of Villa’s hunt for silverware this season.