IT took them a while to warm up but, at the start of a busy week culminating in a Wembley final, Villa took advantage of a soft-centred opponent to reassert themselves as contenders for fourth place in the Premier League.
Burnley, looking increasingly vulnerable after only one win in 15 matches, took an early lead and were not flattered to finish the first half level. Unfortunately, they are a team prone to collapse spectacularly, as they did here in a calamitous 12 minutes early in the second half.
During that period of mayhem they let in four goals, transforming what had been an unconvincing Villa performance into a stroll. No one should pretend that Martin O’Neill’s team are in rip-roaring form after only two wins in eight top-flight matches – and a paltry three goals in seven before yesterday – yet, as a vehicle for building confidence before they contest the Carling Cup with Manchester United, this result may prove invaluable.
Ashley Young’s first Premier League goal since November, a shot that somehow found its way through a thicket of Burnley defenders, had put Villa level after Steven Fletcher’s 11thminute strike stunned the home crowd. But it was Stewart Downing, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor who benefited most as Burnley folded in the face of Villa’s counter-attacks.
With no answer to the pace and subtleties of man of the match Young and Downing on the flanks, or of Agbonlahor and James Milner through the middle, the visitors were simply stretched and then shredded.
Downing, with only one goal in 31 senior matches going into this one, albeit with a serious injury within that spell, now grabbed two in two minutes, collecting Young’s diagonal left-toright pass to drill home his first and picking up another with the help of a deflection off defender Daniel Fox.
The former Middlesbrough winger might have had a hat-trick in four minutes had Brian Jensen, the Burnley goalkeeper, not grasped his volley from a Young corner at the second attempt. But, after Agbonlahor raced down the left channel to set up a slide-in for Heskey barely 60 seconds later, Villa went 4-1 in front in any case. Agbonlahor himself made it five, finishing off a move contrived by Milner and Heskey.
“Apart from that crazy 12 minutes, I felt we could have taken something from the game,” Brian Laws, the Burnley manager said. “But instead of shutting up shop after Villa scored their second goal, we opened up more doors and allowed them to trash the place.”
Given that Burnley had not scored an away goal in the Premier League since September, they were quite possibly as surprised to find themselves in front as Villa were to concede when Fletcher scored after 10 minutes.
It was a nicely crafted goal, none the less, primed by a neat pass from Jack Cork, the 20-year-old midfielder on loan from Chelsea, and set up by David Nugent’s square pass into the six-yard box.
Cork, on his full Premier League debut, delivered the cross from which Martin Paterson scored a second for the visitors in stoppage-time, although by then, of course, Villa were out of sight and O’Neill, mindful of fitting in an FA Cup replay against Crystal Palace on Wednesday before thoughts turn to Wembley, was taking the opportunity to give key players a rest.
“Taking people off looked a long way away at 1-0 down,” O’Neill admitted. “We were sluggish. We didn’t get into gear.”
“But in that spell in the second half we were exciting to watch and the movement and ability to finish, which has not been our strongest point for some time, was very pleasing. It is good preparation for a big week.”
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young (Sidwell, 81), Milner, Petrov, Downing; Agbonlahor (Carew, 72), Heskey (Delfouneso, 76). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), L Young, Delph, Beye.
Burnley (4-1-2-3): Jensen; Mears, Carlisle, Cort, Fox; Bikey; Cork, McDonald (Elliott, 63); Nugent (Nimani, 69), Fletcher (Paterson, 81), Eagles. Substitutes not used: Weaver (gk), Duff, Blake, Thompson. Referee: S Attwell (Warwickshire).
Booked: Burnley Carlisle, Fletcher, Nimani.
Man of the Match:
Young. Attendance: 38,709.