Martin O’Neill has finally managed to take his Villa side to a cup final with a realistic chance of grabbing some silverware, after beating Blackburn Rovers in a thrilling encounter. Not only did the match produce an abundance of goals, the Villans managed to address their lack of goal-scoring form, even at the expense of poor defending.
In a match that had every quality of a cup tie, O’Neill was elated with his team’s performance, stating: “getting to a final’s fantastic, we’re moving ¬forward.” The Villans, who went into the game hoping to safeguard James Milner’s goal from the first leg, were perhaps guilty of complacency in the first 30 minutes as they found themselves two goals behind. Nikola Kalinic struck twice to put the visitors 2-1 up on aggregate and on their way to the Carling Cup final. Brad Guzan was at fault for the first goal after he mistimed his attempt to punch the ball out of the Villa box and Kalinic was able to head home. Guzan, who was been almost faultless for O’Neill’s side in recent matches, could do nothing about Rovers’ second when Kalinic’s determination to get into the box paid off and he slotted home after Guzan had parried a previous attempt.
O’Neill could not have hoped for a worse start and at this point, his side were not on their way to the final in Wembley. However, Villa responded well with a goal four minutes later as Stephen Warnock struck a powerful shot into the roof of the Blackburn net. Perhaps the turning point was Christopher Samba’s sending off for the visiting side after he upended Gabriel Agbonlahor in the area. James Milner duly converted the resulting penalty and by half-time the Villans were 3-2 up on aggregate. After the interval, the Birmingham side showed their true desire to reach the final with three goals in quick succession. On 52 minutes, Stewart Downing’s corning was put into his own net by Steven N’Zonzi, and five minutes later, Agbonlahor ended his goal drought by deflecting Milner’s fierce shot into the net. It only took another five minutes for Villa to hit the target. This time it was Emile Heskey who was threaded through with a clever pass by Milner to slip the ball past Paul Robinson. Milner’s influence in the centre of the park was essential to Villa’s improved performance as they answered all the criticisms of being impotent in front of goal.
Blackburn made for an exciting end to the game after they managed to take the tie to 5-4. Martin Olsson took advantage of some dire Villa defending to execute an overhead kick past Guzan in the Villa net before Brett Emerton’s volley then found its way into the back of the net. This gave Rovers the impetus to search for a unlikely turn-around and crush the hearts of Villa fans. However, one of Villa’s best players, Ashley Young, broke free from his own half and released a curling effort around Robinson to guarantee Villa a cup final – their first since the FA Cup in 2000.
The game did not particularly highlight Villa’s strength, they failed to enjoy much possession even when Blackburn had 10-men and they never really took control of the game. Basic defending errors cost Villa dearly, especially from corners and this allowed Sam Allardyce’s side to get into the game. However, Wednesday witnessed the maturing of Villa’s talent, in the form of James Milner, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor whose individual performances led to dangerous attacking movements and ultimately the goals. O’Neill praised his central midfielder’s performance: “He’s a character and a half. His game’s reached a new level, no doubt. He’s seeing the pass. That’s definitely his position.” Regardless of how Villa performed on the night, they have achieved their goal of reaching the final and they now await the prospect of meeting either Manchester United or Manchester City in the final. Whichever team qualifies will pose a big threat for Villa, but if O’Neill’s side respond with the same determination as they did on Wednesday night, the Northern Irishman could be lifting his first cup at Villa Park.