On Tuesday, Martin O’Neill and his players were expecting a tough away Carling Cup game at Fratton Park, however with the final score being 4-2 in Villa’s favour, the players proved their desire to win this competition. Despite taking an early lead, Pompey never looked as though they were going to prevent the Villans from facing the prospect of a Carling Cup semi-final. Fielding a strong team from the start, O’Neill’s aspirations for silverware were made clear, whilst Avram Grant’s Portsmouth side had to worry about a vital clash against Burnley on the weekend.
2 L Young – 5 Dunne – 24 Cuellar – 25 Warnock
8 Milner – 19 Petrov – 6 Downing – 7 A Young
11 Agbonlahor – 18 Heskey
What was interesting about O’Neill’s selection was that he decided to employ Stewart Downing in the central midfield position. Questions had been asked of how the manager would incorporate the England international into his squad and, from his influence in Villa’s victory, O’Neill has found that attacking presence in midfield which had been previously missing. Downing had an exceptional game in the attacking midfield position, just behind the two forwards, and capped off his fine performance with a headed goal from the tightest of angles. The Villa manager was quick to express his praise for his summer signing: “What pleased me most about him? I think it is his ability on the ball. He can manoeuvre it, he can play it, he’s got a turn of pace and when he is fully wound up he’ll be a proper asset to us.”
It was not just Downing who impressed on Tuesday night, the whole of the midfield played a part in Villa’s fine display. Stiliyan Petrov made amends for his early own-goal with a strong performance just in front of the defence, whilst the wingers, Ashley Young and James Milner, were a constant thorn in the Pompey defence and they each got a deserved goal – a superb strike from Milner and Young with a controlled finish. Emile Heskey also increased his chance of being chosen to start in this weekend’s game against Hull with a deft chipped shot which beat Portsmouth keeper, Asmir Begovic. In stark contrast to last Saturday’s game against Tottenham, the Villans played sharp, determined, attacking football and they fully warranted their four goals.
O’Neill will no doubt be relishing the chance of a Carling Cup final appearance at the new Wembley Stadium and it can be argued that Villa got the best result of the draw. Their opponents will be Blackburn Rovers, whilst Manchester United and Manchester City were drawn together in the other semi-final. In addition to this, the Carling Cup draw means that the Villans will play Sam Allardyce’s team three times in the space of a month in a two legged semi-final and in the FA Cup third round clash. Rovers will prove to be the obstacle in front of Villa’s search for silverware and, considering Blackburn have already beaten O’Neill’s men in the Premier League, Villa will have to be wary of opposition who have caused them problems in the past.
It is back to business in the Premier League this weekend and Villa are desperately in need of a win after drawing five of their last seven games. Phil Brown’s ever-improving Hull are the opposition and the Villans will definitely be faced with a tough test, especially after they managed to earn a 1-1 with Manchester City last week. However, Downing stated his desire for the Villans to pick up three points: “If we want get into that top bracket of teams in the Premier League, we need to be picking up three points from games at Villa Park – and send the fans home happy.” He then added: “No disrespect to Hull but we need to be winning these matches at home”, and this is exactly what O’Neill’s men need to do to consolidate their promising league position.