Club Focus – Aston Villa – Milner at the forefront of Villa’s success

The Villans made a fantastic start to their congested December fixture list with a third consecutive win in the Premier League to move into fourth place.

Carrying on the momentum after a shock victory at Old Trafford was never going to be easy, however, but Villa made their top four credentials clear with an assured victory over Steve Bruce’s Sunderland. Emile Heskey’s goal proved that he still had the qualities of a forward, whilst James Milner’s effort was simply sublime. All in all the midweek game had plenty of positives for Martin O’Neill and his players alike.

The Villa manager’s reaction to the game was a mixture of delight as well as modesty: “We’re playing some really good quality football and were very strong tonight. James Milner was fantastic, he’s just been colossal in central midfield. He looks as if he’s played there all his career However, he was quick to play down any complacency that could arise from Villa’s promising position: “There’s a tendency to become incredibly excited about things but we will be tested over the next couple of months. Last season’s top four have been the four for a long time and Manchester City are very strong. So are Tottenham.”

The two other teams in Villa’s position went head to head on Wednesday but the result the Villans would have hoped for did not happen. A draw would have benefitted O’Neill’s position in the league, but it was Harry Redknapp’s Spurs who effortlessly disposed of a lacklustre Manchester City side in a three goal thrashing. The ever-changing top four challengers now appear to be Villa and Spurs, but even though the Villans have the upper hand in terms of points and League standings, Tottenham have been tipped the most likely because they show more attacking flair comparable to a current top four side.

Nevertheless Villa’s attacking performance was a joy to behold on Tuesday and they could have easily left the Stadium of Light with three or four goals to their name. At the start of the season O’Neill’s men played simple, route one football, heavily relying on counter-attacking football. However, the Villa manager has addressed this unattractive style of football and Tuesday, in particular, saw a different yet effective style of play which suited the players perfectly. The Villans worked the ball well with one-touch passes that opened up the Sunderland defence with ease. The players were also dangerous off the ball, they interchanged positions to create space and as a result they always had options upfront.

This is not to say that Sunderland were without their chances, but the Villa defence on most occasions were on hand to deal with the threat of the Black Cats. Nonetheless, the defence were sometimes caught out by long balls, but veteran goalkeeper Brad Friedel underlined why he is still one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League with vital stops which prevented Sunderland from getting back into the game. Perhaps what was most successful about O’Neill’s tactics was the continuation counter-attacking football. Ashley Young and Stewart Downing gave Sunderland’s full-backs a torrid time, beating them for pace on every occasion. Both wingers hit the woodwork and were at the forefront of Villa’s attacking force.

However, it was Milner who once again received all the plaudits for his versatility in his performance in the centre of midfield. His passing in particular was a key aspect of his game with clever balls that split the Sunderland defence to constantly put both Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey through. At the same time he was strong in the tackle, constantly winning the ball back for his side and he proved that he has an eye for goal with a superb strike from outside the area. It is all these attributes that make him an obvious choice for Fabio Capello’s England selection, but he could also be the reason for Villa’s success this season, as long as he can remain consistent with his form. The England international followed his manager’s modesty and said, “There’s a long way to go and it’s obviously nice to be up there, but there’s a lot of games to be played. It’s down to us to keep working hard, keep improving and keep putting in performances.”

The Villans host Stoke City on Saturday and it is a perfect opportunity to carry on their current form with a win in front of the Villa Park faithful. However, with the Arsenal game looming around the corner, time will tell if Villa truly have what it takes to compete with the best teams in the English game.

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