Club Focus – Aston Villa – O’Neill relishes Cup-final test

With qualification into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup secured, the Villans can look ahead towards, undeniably, their biggest game of the season. Fielding a strong side against Crystal Palace suggested that Martin O’Neill wanted to kill off the tie as soon as possible and keep their chances of reaching a second Wembley alive.

Aston Villa Starting XI:

22 Guzan

2 L Young – 24 Cuellar – 5 Dunne – 25 Warnock

7 A Young – 8 Milner – 16 Delph – 6 Downing

11 Agbonlahor – 10 Carew

The two strikers, in particular, gave the Villa manager some food for thought after impressive performances. John Carew forced an early save from Palace goalkeeper, Julian Speroni as the visitors searched for the opening goal. Gabriel Agbonlahor’s pace caused problems for the hosts and the Villa striker nearly opened the scoring after he expertly spun past Claude Davis to dash into the box, but his low shot was well parried by Speroni. Agbonlahor’s determination was later rewarded after Ashley Young delivered in a teasing ball from a corner and the England striker evaded his marker, Shaun Derry, and headed it past Speroni from four yards. When the scores were tied at 1-1, after Stephen Warnock gave a penalty to the home side, the Villa players pushed for the winning goal in order to prevent the prospect of an extra 30 minutes of football. In the end it was Carew’s persistence and strength in the Palace penalty area that earned him two penalties which he emphatically scored.

Agbonlahor appears as though he is regaining his form after he scored his second goal in as many games, while Carew’s seventh and eighth goals of the season have given his manager selection difficulties for the Carling Cup final on Sunday. Being aware of the attacking qualities of Manchester United might force O’Neill to opt for his defensive 4-5-1 formation, in the hope that his wide men will catch the Red Devils on the counter-attack. However, perhaps the Villa manager would benefit from fielding a 4-4-2 formation to provide a bit more stability to the side. Due to his pace and technical ability, Agbonlahor has to start to cause problems for United’s defence and as Emile Heskey and Carew are similar in their approach to the game, O’Neill will have to consider form when choosing another striker upfront. At the moment, Carew looks the more likely to partner Agbonlahor as Heskey is currently nursing an injury.

In the anticipation to the match, O’Neill said, “Winning the trophy is obviously the ultimate. There’s no getting away from that. It would be fantastic to do so. We are going to try and win the game.” Despite United’s obvious attacking threat, it would be wrong to play the game with a defensive mindset and due to the nature of this fixture, Villa will need to try and match Sir Alex Ferguson’s side right from the whistle. O’Neill added: “I hope getting to these stages in the competition will be a regular feature. It’s not that easy but it’s something the players are striving for. If you saw their performances recently, they are putting everything into the games.” Perhaps it is this belief in their performance that will be another factor which could bring the Birmingham side success at the weekend.

When considering that the majority of Villa’s goals have come from set-pieces in recent games, pressure will be on Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to deliver expert crosses into the United penalty area. James Milner, on the other hand, will be required to play the role of playmaker in the heart of the Villa midfield, looking for penetrative passes to open up the opposition defence. At the opposite end of the pitch, Richard Dunne’s authority at the back will be crucial to ensure that they do not become undone by the United attack. O’Neill will also need to address the threat of Wayne Rooney, perhaps through the tactic of man-marking to keep him at bay.

Finally, Brad Guzan has been the main goalkeeper throughout the Carling Cup run, however, perhaps O’Neill will want to go with the significantly more experienced Brad Friedel whom the Northern Irishman can definitely count on in goal. A combination of belief, fitness and tactics will be crucial if Villa are going to attain their first piece of silverware this season. They certainly have the players, but they will have to perform on the big stage if they are to truly show their potential and hunger for a trophy.

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