Whilst some critics may argue that Villa’s league form has been somewhat inconsistent, their cup form has been the complete opposite. Reaching the final of the Carling Cup last Wednesday only prompted the Villans to embark on another campaign for silverware after beating a hardworking Brighton side in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Lacking his usual modesty, Martin O’Neill showed a hint of optimism following his side’s victory: “Can we reach two cup finals this season? We are certainly going to try. We’ve reached one already and now we’re in the fifth round of the FA Cup.”
The match on Saturday showcased some of the young talent O’Neill has to choose from and both of them played a part in Villa’s victory. Marc Albrighton was recalled to the senior squad and he was impressive right from the start. His darting run down the right-hand side saw him escape several Brighton defenders before setting up Nathan Delfouneso for a simple tap-in after only five minutes in the game. From then on, Albrighton looked as though he would provide huge problems for the Brighton defence, until he was injured moments later, forcing O’Neill to replace him with James Milner.
Nathan Delfouneso also gave Martin O’Neill food for thought after he scored in his second successive start for the Villans. The 18-year-old had several chances to increase his goal tally throughout the game, most notably with an impressive 30-yard run which ended with his shot racketing off the post. Although he is young, he is becoming one of Villa’s most consistent goal scorers, and even though there is the chance he may not repeat this form in league, O’Neill could choose to take the gamble if his players continue to be ineffective in front of goal.
However, if there was one youngster that deserved all the plaudits and the man of the match award it was Fabian Delph. Some critics questioned O’Neill’s decision to sign Delph from Leeds United and how the Northern Irishman would include him into his plans Nevertheless, after Saturday’s performance, it became obvious just why O’Neill brought the 20-year-old to Villa Park. On the ball he was direct, composed and confident, whilst off the ball he was rugged in his tackles and always prepared to provide support for the strikers in front of him. He even got onto the goal sheet after he picked up Milner’s perfectly threaded through pass and expertly controlled the ball before drifting to the right and planting a low, precise finish into the right corner of the net. Delph showed his growing confidence after the game: “It felt good but I thought I should have had a hat-trick to be honest,” but he still believes he has much to improve in his game: “People like to set themselves high standards and hopefully I can reach the standards that I was at, at Leeds.”
From this it is evident that O’Neill’s decision to mix youth with experience paid off as they find themselves into the fifth round of the FA Cup with the benefit of a relatively easy draw away to either Wolves or Crystal Palace. O’Neill spoke about the element of fate in FA Cup draws: “Of course, you need some luck with the draw and a lot of things can happen in cup matches which are one-off games,” and with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all out of the competition this early, Villa’s chances have definitely been increased.
On Wednesday, the Villans face a tough challenge against Arsenal in the Premier League and they will be looking to set things straight after a 3-0 loss at the Emirates less than a month ago. Villa will need to take the impetus from their impressive cup run to their league campaign and cause problems for the Gunners. O’Neill will know that his side cannot afford to miss chances with his side dropping down to 7th place in recent weeks.