Milner strike gives Villans the initiative
Carling Cup semi-final 1st leg
Aston Villa 1
James Milner edged Aston Villa to within touching distance of their first major final in 10 years with a stunning goal that compounded Sam Allardyce's frustrations as Blackburn manager.
Milner's seventh goal of the season was enough to hand Villa a crucial advantage ahead of next week's second leg at Villa Park, although Martin O'Neill's team rode their luck, with Nikola Kalinic twice hitting the post for Blackburn in the second half.
Pre-match speculation had suggested that Allardyce could become the next Premier League manager to lose his job should Blackburn's winless run of nine games lengthen over the next week.
Although Allardyce cannot count on universal popularity among the Blackburn supporters, senior figures in the boardroom have made it clear that there is no desire for regime change, with chairman John Williams personally informing the manager that his position is not under review.
Although Lancashire rivals Burnley and Bolton have both appointed new managers within the past seven days, there is no stomach for similar upheaval at Ewood Park.
Despite reaching six domestic semi-finals in the past eight years, Blackburn were only able to progress to the final on one occasion -- when they won the 2002 League Cup against Tottenham -- so Allardyce's warning to his players that they could not allow this opportunity to pass them by was founded on the club's bitter experience.
At the same stage of this competition in 2004, Allardyce's Bolton recorded a 5-2 first-leg victory against Villa before progressing to the final. But despite David Dunn's third-minute miss, when he turned and shot wide from 20 yards, Blackburn rarely looked likely to emulate that Bolton victory.
Villa appeared more threatening from the start and Emile Heskey had a shot blocked by Chris Samba before Milner opened the scoring with a stunner on 22 minutes. Picture Cristiano Ronaldo's breakaway goal for Manchester United in last season's Champions League semi-final victory at Arsenal and you will get a sense of Milner's strike.
Having received the ball inside his own penalty area, courtesy of 'keeper Brad Guzan's punched clearance, Milner sprinted clear before offloading the ball to Stewart Downing, who accelerated down the right flank. Milner continued to power forward from the centre circle and he was rewarded when, after picking up the return from Downing inside the six-yard box, he guided the ball past Paul Robinson.
Villa's pace on the counter-attack stretched Blackburn to breaking point, with Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor both causing problems for the home side. Agbonlahor was booked for diving by referee Mark Clattenburg on 38 minutes although there appeared to be contact from Samba.
Villa were backed by a sold-out allocation of 5,000 noisy supporters in Ewood Park's Darwen End and the Midlands contingent mercilessly taunted the home fans with chants of "empty seats", a mocking reference to the disappointingly low turn-out of just 18,595 for a supposedly prestige fixture.
Having booed their team off at half-time, those Blackburn supporters who did turn up were clearly not in the mood to see their team blow their Wembley ambitions in the first leg. So it was unsurprising to witness a surge by their side in the early stages of the second half and it almost brought an equaliser when Kalinic headed against the post on 54 minutes.
The Croatian has scored just three times since his £6m summer arrival and his confidence has barely been helped by the unforgiving crowd at Ewood Park, but he was unlucky not to score when his glancing header from Morten Gamst Pedersen's cross struck the woodwork.
Ten minutes later, the former Hajduk Split forward rattled the post again with a low strike from Brett Emerton's cross.
Villa had opportunities to double their lead and all but confirm a clash against Manchester United or Manchester City at Wembley on February 28. But Young shot wide and Robinson produced an exceptional save to keep out Agbonlahor's 90th-minute header. (© Daily Telegraph, London)