Monday 18 December 2017

Young Villa fail to live up to the hype

Ian Herbert

THE stadium announcer appeared to be a Villa fan.

In a brave attempt to drum up some enthusiasm for a first Wembley final which Alex Ferguson was so indifferent to that he wiled away his post-match press conference tapping into a mobile phone, Martin O’Neill’s players were introduced on the tannoy as gladiators.So Carlos Cuellar was “the Spanish matador”, James Collins “the Welsh warrior” and Ashley Young the “dazzling dribbler”.

The United contingent were kept out of this little introductory routine, perhaps in recognition of the fact that this big day belonged to Villa, the club whose fans were doing all of the singing on the London Underground at lunchtime. “My garden shed, is bigger than this….” they sang when the new Wembley loomed into view.

The first events of the afternoon proved that the stadium build-up was anything but hyperbole, with Gabby Agbonlahor driving Nemanja Vidic to distraction and proving, just as he did when he scored in Villa’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford in November, that he is perhaps the best counter-attacking striker in the country on his day.

O’Neill declared at Old Trafford after that Premier League match that his players might just provide “an opportunity there for Fabio Capello if he is having second thoughts about things’’. Here was their moment to prove something again. Capello seems to need an awful lot of convincing where Villa’s young players are concerned.

Agbonlahor was excluded from the latest England squad at the weekend and so too Ashley Young, who is rarely preferred to Shaun Wright-Phillips these days. Young made as much of statement as Agbonlahor in the first half of the game. The contest between he and Patrice Evra had always seemed like one of the most intriguing of the afternoon – it was Aaron Lennon who gave the Frenchman the runaround in last year’s final.

James Milner also revealed why, Wayne Rooney aside, he has been one of the national side’s few bright hopes this season. Capello’s countenance seemed to be one of mild satisfaction as Milner initially dominated the midfield, taking a pass from Stewart Downing – another midfielder with something to prove to the England coach – and forcing a sharp save from Tomasz Kuszczak. When Stephen Warnock, who now finds himself vying with Everton’s Leighton Baines for the left-back’s jersey for South Africa, placed a fine tackle to halt Antonio Valencia’s flight down the right, you almost detected an Italian grin.

The pity for O’Neill and Capello was that the life drained away from Villa as the game wore on. Ferguson often comments on the fact that Villa’s teams are easy to predict and the same goes for their counter-attacking style. When United dropped deep – Michael Carrick, for whom this was a fine afternoon, was in his own penalty area for large sections of the second half – Villa had no way around them. And when they found one – Young skinned Darren Fletcher on one occasion just before the hour, pushing the ball around the inside and chasing around the outside – the final execution was poor. When Young and ball reached the righthand edge of the penalty area the cross was low and poor. Vidic blocked it easily.

O’Neill celebrated the performance of his players in a characteristically effusive way later on but that didn’t quite tally with the impression of what had played out on the pitch.

Vidic rarely looked troubled after that first skirmish, Jonny Evans was never put to anything like the test Everton laid on him at Goodison Park nine days ago and O’Neill might reasonably be challenged on why he didn’t try Young running at Rafael, the full-back who has looked the weakest part of United’s defence when he has played in recent months.

It means that from the moment when Wayne Rooney climbed to deliver his seventh headed goal in eight games there only seemed to be one probable winner. That was a shame because the story of the gladiators conquering against the odds is a more edifying one than Ferguson receiving text messages while he reflects on whether 34 trophies as United manager just might become 35 as the season wears on.

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