The Villans took a step closer to a Carling Cup final at the Wembley Stadium on Thursday night after securing a 1-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers away at Ewood Park. On the night Martin O’Neill’s side proved too much for Sam Allardyce’s Rovers and with an away goal advantage, it looks extremely likely that they will secure victory at Villa Park in the return leg.
Despite being delighted with the performance, the Villa manager claimed that “the tie is in the balance”, refusing to accept that it had been won after the first leg. The Northern Irishman fielded a strong side in the opening leg of the tie, clearly stating his intent in the competition. He also stuck with Brad Guzan in the Villa goal after playing a massive part in the competition thus far. With the likes of Ashley Young, James Milner, Stewart Downing, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor in the starting line-up, Villa were always going to have an attacking mindset, and this, in the end, made way for a comfortable victory over Blackburn. It took Villa 23 minutes to opening the scoring, after James Milner and Stewart Downing executed and excellent one-two to see Milner slot the return past Paul Robinson in the Rovers net. Perhaps the score line did not reflect the performance of the Villans, but credit to the Blackburn players who battled tirelessly, despite receiving much grief from the fans inside the stadium.
The Villans posed an attacking threat throughout the match and in addition to their familiar counter-attacking football, the players began to play the ball much more, showing much more attacking variety by building attacks from the back-line, showing the real attributes of a top quality side. The nature and extent of Villa’s chances on goal illustrated just how much progressing to the final meant to the players. Ashley Young came close in the opening stages with an attempt at a volley that went over the bar, just before Stiliyan Petrov sent a disguised pass to Heskey who was in two minds, not realising he had more time on the ball. Agbonlahor went close too, but his shot was too tame and Paul Robinson saved accordingly. In the second half, Robinson was once again on hand to save from Milner just before Young sent the ball across an empty net, but there was no one there to provide a tap-in.
Blackburn reacted positively in the second half with chances to equalise, but Richard Dunne and the re-called James Collins managed to effectively limit the chances of Nikola Kalinic who was by one of the Rovers’ most dangerous players. Martin O’Neill will not want to be ruing the missed chances by his side to increase their advantage, but there is a little cause for concern after the Villa players once again fail to take all their chances. However, their attacking diversity proved that they do not have to be over reliant on the counter-attack, and surely in time, the goals will follow as well. Milner once again received the plaudits after his goal and his generally successful performance in the centre of midfield. “It was a big goal for us at the time and we proceeded to play really well after that. I just think that it was a great goal because we’ve broken from the edge of our own box and James has carried it. Great midfield players now are able to carry the ball distances and finish the chances off – and he is a great player.” However, Petrov’s role alongside Milner in the centre of midfield should not go unnoticed because the skipper played deep inside the half, allowing Milner to join the Villa attack on every occasion, making them much more potent upfront. Villa’s next game sees them host West Ham United at Villa Park, and without a Premier League game since the 29th December, O’Neill will be looking for a win to get their league campaign back on track.