The Villans finally got one over a team they failed to beat in recent months as they progressed to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Martin O’Neill looked to merge his experienced players with youth and it paid off for him in the end, as they managed to see off Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn Rovers with considerable ease. The draw that followed the FA Cup fixtures gave the Birmingham side real hope of progressing in the competition, drawing against Gus Poyet’s League One outfit, Brighton and Hove Albion. Even though O’Neill cannot be complacent about the draw, his decision to mix youth and experience may be vital to Villa’s success.The third round tie against Blackburn saw Martin O’Neill display the depth of his squad by resting key players such as Gabriel Agbonlahor, James Milner, Richard Dunne and Stiliyan Petrov.
Aston Villa Starting XI
23 Beye 29 Collins 24 Cuellar 25 Warnock
7 A Young 20 Reo-Coker 16 Delph 6 Downing
14 Delfouneso 18 Heskey
Despite not being Aston Villa’s most recognised starting line-up, O’Neill’s fringe players did not in any way weaken the squad. Perhaps the key to this was the manager’s decision to side the inexperienced Fabian Delph and Nathan Delfouneso with the senior payers of Nigel Reo-Coker and Emile Heskey. The seven changes to the side that lost to Liverpool showed that O’Neill’s intentions were clearly set on the Carling Cup semi-final against the Rovers on Tuesday. Ashley Young’s return proved that his absence had been sorely missed by Villa and he was thorn to the Blackburn defence straight from the off. On 12 minutes he delivered a teasing cross which met the head of Delfouneso who opened the scoring in a game that was to be very important for him and his first team chances. Young goalkeeper Brad Guzan then gave O’Neill another cause for a selection headache after saving another penalty from David Dunn after Reo-Coker upended Steven Reid. Young then delivered another dangerous cross, this time from the left, onto the head of Carlos Cuellar to put Villa 2-0 at half time and in good value for their lead. Guzan then dropped in a swinging corner to allow Nikola Kalinic to halve Villa’s lead. Despite a nervy end to the game, John Carew was fouled in the box in the last few minutes of the game and he converted the resulting penalty to confirm Villa’s victory.
The victory comes on the back of O’Neill’s realisation that he has to rotate his squad to ensure Villa’s league success. With the current team line up playing steadily throughout the season, it will not be long before fatigue and injuries begin to kick in. However, O’Neill does not see his substitute bench the same way he views one of the top four sides: “I remember going to watch Manchester United at Wigan and the quality they had sat two rows down from me watching the game was frightening. They’ve earned the right to do that. We’ve not reached that stage but I do accept we’re gathering a bit of a momentum and that the rotation policy will have to come into play at some stage. It’s when you actually decide to go and do that.” Even though the Villans do not possess a reliable veteran such as Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes who can be found on the bench at United, the Blackburn game proved that O’Neill can rotate his squad with the confidence that his side will put in a positive performance. The young players will gain valuable experience from these competitive fixtures and most importantly they will take experience from the senior Villa players in order to improve their game.
As the Carling Cup semi-final approaches, it is likely that O’Neill will opt for his stronger side in a competition that Villa have a good chance of winning. However, the northern Irishman knows that his side will need to be weary of Blackburn this time around as: “It’s a different competition, different matches and a different set of circumstances.” Rovers will no doubt be hungry for cup success in a competition which favours the underdog, but the Villans can match this with their own desire for silverware.