Wayne Rooney’s winning header meant that Martin O’Neill must continue his tenure in wait for his first piece of silverware at Aston Villa.
There is no doubt that the Villa players and fans alike will feel downhearted, especially after the Villans matched United for long periods during the game, even feeling they may have had a good opportunity to win it. Villa played with width and penetration, they were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and Gabriel Agbonlahor’s pace was problematic for Nemanja Vidic throughout the game.
Once the referee signalled the beginning of the Carling Cup final, it was the Birmingham side that started the brightest and after five minutes, they were one goal to the good. Ashley Young’s pass set Agbonlahor through down the left flank and his pace was too much for Vidic who brought down the England striker in the penalty area forcing the referee, Phil Dowd, to point to the spot. To the surprise of the Villa and United faithful, the Serbian defender escaped a red card – in fact Dowd deemed the foul unworthy of even a yellow. Nevertheless, the Villans took full advantage of their early opportunity and James Milner seamlessly converted an assured penalty in front of the watching Fabio Capello.
With the best defensive record in the league, it appeared as though it was going to be difficult for the Red Devils to break through a resilient Villa defence. However, Richard Dunne was dispossessed by Dimitar Berbatov after he failed to bring the ball under control just inside the Villa half. Despite redeeming himself with an inch perfect tackle on Berbatov, the ball inadvertently fell to Michael Owen who levelled matters with expert finish.
With the scores level, the tie began to open up and Villa’s attacking approach to the game made it equally intriguing for the neutrals. Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, began the match in their conventional positions but had switched flanks within a couple of minutes, and kept switching in order to try and catch United’s full-backs off balance. O’Neill’s 4-4-2 formation turned out to be successful and so was the way in which the Villans attacked from the flanks, particularly with the neat work of Milner and the perceptive Emile Heskey calmly holding up the play and organising the attacking distribution.
O’Neill’s choice of tactics was almost flawless as his side were able to match Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in all areas of the pitch and it was the reason that the scores remained level for so long. Agbonlahor, Downing, Milner and Young all took advantage of the inexperienced Rafael da Silva at right-back, each penetrating down the left-hand flank at some stage, an area where Villa looked most dangerous. It was in fact Ferguson who had to adapt his tactics to ensure that his players defended deeper ensuring that Vidic had a few yards on Agbonlahor who looked a threat throughout.
In the end, Berbatov opened up a usually solid Villa back line to find Antonio Valencia whose delivery in return found Wayne Rooney. His expertly taken header after 74 minutes tilted the tie in favour of the Red Devils. In spite of an excellent performance by the Villa players, Rooney’s winning goal underlined what Villa might have needed to win the game, a goal scorer. Emile Heskey’s off the ball play was a joy to behold whilst Agbonlahor was effective in bringing the Villa attack forward. However, both strikers failed to force a decent save out of Tomasz Kuszczak and neither did the substitute, John Carew.
The Villa players can definitely take more positives out of the game than negatives and whilst they still search for silverware, the occasion will surely give them the impetus and desire to reach more cup finals in the near future. Carlos Cuellar clearly stated Villa’s aspirations following the cup defeat: “We are a stronger team now. We have a strong mentality and we have decided we need to get into the top four and try to win the FA Cup. Even though we lost we are feeling good with our confidence.” The Villans play Reading in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup this Sunday a game that O’Neill is sure to prioritise and in the Premier League they have two games in-hand on Tottenham and Liverpool and one game on Manchester City. Consistency is the key now for the Villa players, for now the manager and his players alike will be happy to still be fighting on two fronts.
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