Aston Villa’s fifth round battle against Crystal Palace on Sunday may have ended in a draw, giving both sides a second chance to reach the quarter-finals, but the game was not without its controversy. While Neil Warnock was left feeling irate after Villa’s equalising goal, Martin O’Neill has every right to feel elated with his side’s determination to keep their FA Cup hopes alive, even if it Villa were slightly fortunate.
O’Neill, who has yet to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup as a manager, fielded a strong side against the Championship outfit, clearly highlighting his aims to reach Wembley for a second time this year.
Aston Villa Starting XI:
2 L Young – 29 Collins – 5 Dunne – 25 Warnock
7 A Young – 8 Milner – 19 Petrov – 16 Delph – 6 Downing
Just like in midweek, the Northern Irishman decided to stay with his favoured 4-5-1 formation, perhaps being wary of the threat that Palace would pose. However, the Villans did not remain defensive as the game began to develop into a classic cup tie, with the match becoming much more open with chances at both end of the field. While some may criticise Villa’s failure to easily dispose of a struggling team – Palace are19th in the Coca-Cola Championship table – others may argue that the context of a cup tie means that the Villans came up against determined opposition.
To Villa’s surprise, it was the home side that took the lead after 24 minutes when a Palace corner found the unmarked Johannes Ertl who headed the ball into the net. With one of the best defences in the Premier League, O’Neill will definitely be frustrated with his side’s inability to defend from a simple corner. After the first goal, Friedel ensured his defensive ranks kept it tight and on 35 minutes Villa were back in the game. James Collins rose well to get on the end of a superb Stewart Downing delivery to head past the Palace keeper. With chances coming at either end, it was difficult to determine which side was going to go ahead until Darren Ambrose’s unstoppable free-kick from 35-yards sent the home crowd wild. Ambrose then nearly sealed victory for Neil Warnock’s side with a looping header that hit the angle of the post and bar. Nevertheless, the Birmingham side responded well and three minutes before the end, Stiliyan Petrov’s diving header from a Downing corner kept Villa in the competition.
Stewart Downing’s performance on Sunday gave England boss Fabio Capello some food for thought after his two assists lead to both goals. The former Middlesbrough player showcased the quality of his delivery and how dangerous it can be for opposition defences. Since coming back from injury, Downing’s introduction has meant that Villa are even more dangerous from set-pieces as they showed against Crystal Palace. Petrov was quick to show his admiration for Downing’s performance:“He’s worked really hard and he has a really great attitude. When you have players like that, it’s a great benefit for the club.”
The Villa skipper was just as impressive in the game, in all areas of his performance. Not only did he defend well from midfield, he made some excellent tackles and executed a series of neat through balls throughout the game. However, it was his performance as captain which provoked considerable praise from his manager:“I thought Stiliyan led by example all afternoon… he was just never-say-die at the end. As a captain I couldn’t ask anymore of him with the things he has done on and off the field.”
The quarter-final draw saw the Villans escape Premier League opposition with the prospect of facing either Reading or West Brom if they are to beat Crystal Palace in the replay. However, with the replay being four days before the Carling Cup final, O’Neill has a selection crisis as he decides who to rest and who to play. He can only hope that his decisions do not jeopardise Villa’s position in either competition, nor distract them from their league pursuit.
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