When the Villa squad walked out at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday, they knew any result other than a win was simply not good enough. Luckily, Ashley Young’s exquisite strike in the eleventh minute was enough to guarantee the Midlanders all three points, putting them right back in the race for fourth spot after Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur both dropped points on the weekend.
With their seven-goal thrashing at the hands of Chelsea echoing around the Villa dressing room, a victory against Bolton on the weekend was enough to put their hurt behind them, albeit momentarily. The match against Bolton was scrappy to say the least but, in the end, Young’s curling right-footed shot into the top corner of Jussi Jaaskelainen’s net after being teed up by Stephen Warnock was enough to guarantee the visiting side maximum points. On paper the Villa defence looked like they had been tested throughout the game with 55 clearances made against the Wanderers, however, in truth, the defence and Brad Friedel has relatively little to do at the back. At the other end of the pitch, Gabriel Agbonlahor missed another one-on-one and although Villa still won the game, the Englishman will need to be much more clinical when the Villains play Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday.
Besides three points, the victory holds greater significance in terms of Villa’s end to the season. After their 7-1 rout to Carlo Ancelotti’s men, the Villa players needed a confidence boost, particularly ahead of their repeat clash against the Blues on Saturday in the FA Cup. Martin O’Neill identified the importance of Saturday’s victory, saying:“This was an important day because we showed the people we have character and that you have to occasionally put things into perspective – maybe one wretched half-hour [at Chelsea] shouldn’t take the gloss of a brilliant season.” Ashley Young, on the other hand, stated why he believes the Northern Irishman should remain Villa manager: “Of course, Martin is integral to taking Villa on to the next stage. Since he has come in, the club has gone up step by step and you cannot ask for more than that. If you had said to me at the start of the season that we would get to the Carling Cup final, an FA Cup semi-final and would go into April with a chance of finishing fourth, you would have taken that. I believe everyone knows we have had a good season.”
O’Neill’s choice to leave James Milner out of the starting XI not only proved his confidence in his squad but also his priorities in run-up to the FA Cup semi-final. Perhaps the lack of stamina in the Villa squad was the reason why the Villains crashed out of the UEFA Cup and the race for fourth place last season. It is on this evidence critics have stated that even though the Midlanders are still in the race for the Champions League spot, their chances of achieving fourth place are still unconvincing. John Terry was quick to point out Villa’s tendency to drop in performance after 60 minutes of football, while ex-Villa player Gary Cahill said: “They don’t seem to have that stamina to go all the way.” As expected, O’Neill defended the comments made about his club: “The truth is that it doesn’t stand up. In the previous game against Sunderland we were pressing. And we scored in the 82nd minute against Wolves [in the 2-2 draw the game before]. It just doesn’t stack up. My own view is that it’s a pretty idle comment. It’s the sort of comment you can make when you have won a game pretty convincingly.” The Villa manager’s remarks are justified by the fact Villa have had no European distractions after their early exit from the Europa League and their run of unbeaten results which have kept them in contention for the Champions League spot.
After gaining three points at Bolton, the Villains can now focus on their semi-final against Chelsea which is not only a chance to progress to the final of the competition, but to also get one back against a side that humiliated them a week ago.