Two weeks ago, after Aston Villa’s goalless draw against Arsenal, Arsene Wenger implied that the Villans were guilty of approaching the game negatively: “They stopped us from playing when we had the ball, they played a long-ball game and closed us down.” The game against Tottenham last weekend provoked further criticism against Villa’s overreliance on the defence.
The midweek game against in-form Manchester United was never going to be easy, but with the home advantage and with no margin for error in the race for fourth place, the Birmingham side began the game brightly and deservedly led after 19 minutes. Carlos Cuellar’s looping header beat Edwin van der Sar and the Villans, who had not conceded a Premier League goal in 2010, looked good value for their lead. However, the Villans were immediately pegged back four minutes later by a Ryan Giggs cross that James Collins turned into his own net. The dismissal of Nani after 28 minutes gave Villa the perfect opportunity to make use of their one-man advantage, but Martin O’Neill failed to change tactics early enough and it was United that looked the most likely to take all three points.
By remaining cautious and not taking the game to United, the Villa players will have qualified certain criticisms of their prosaic attacking performance. O’Neill reflected on the result after the game: “When they had the man sent off, I was hoping we’d be able to take the initiative. But in the second half, we didn’t create enough really and didn’t make enough use of the extra man.” This was very true of Villa who failed to conduct themselves accordingly after the sending off and it was the Red Devils who were creating more opportunities with constant waves of attacking pressure. Perhaps this was due to the defensive 4-5-1 formation fielded by O’Neill, even though he was at home, which meant that Villa were naturally defensive until the introduction of John Carew.
Aston Villa Starting XI:
24 Cuellar – 29 Collins – 5 Dunne – 2 L Young
7 A Young – 8 Milner – 19 Petrov – 16 Delph – 6 Downing
On the other hand, the Birmingham side successfully built attacks from the back with effective give and go passes, but the United defence was on hand to prevent any Villa attacks from materialising. James Milner showed impressive skill to escape Wes Brown and strike at the opposition goal, but his sliced shot called for a simple save by the United goalkeeper. Despite having many men back when defending, the Villans also attacked in numbers proving that they are not reliant on the long ball game. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of their game was the quality of crosses from free-kicks and corners. It was Stewart Downing’s cross that led to the opening goal and from then on, their set-pieces put the United defence under considerable pressure.
Nevertheless, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were definitely the better side and if it was not for exceptional saves by the evergreen Brad Friedel, they could have easily put two or three past Villa. Once again he established himself as one of the best keepers in the league with critical saves preventing the visitors from taking the lead. His most impressive save was forced by Wayne Rooney after he had to turn his shot over the bar. Another player who impressed on Wednesday was Fabian Delph who surprisingly made his third Premier League start of the season, showing just how much faith O’Neill has in him. He rarely put a foot wrong against United and his passing game was a particular highlight before he was eventually substituted. Although he is still young, Delph relishes more opportunities to reach his potential: “I’ve definitely got a lot more to add, but hopefully by playing more games I can get more experience.”
With four points taken off Manchester United this season, Carlos Cuellar believes the Villans will go into the Carling Cup final with substantial confidence: “Will we be favourites for the final? It will be hard but we can do it. We have the confidence from these two league games. The final will be different but we believe we can win the game and we won’t be scared of United.” While the Villa players can be mentally prepared for the final at the end of the month, they will need to show much more attacking intent to have any chance against the current holders.
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