Youngsters get Villa back to winning ways
Aston Villa 3 Blackburn 1
Successive defeats over the festive season, and in particular the desolate nature of their last-minute loss to Liverpool on Tuesday night, had left Aston Villa a little low and in need of a New Year pick-me-up. Progression to the fourth round of the FA Cup will do nicely.
Not that it was strenuous, by any stretch of the imagination. Martin O'Neill couldn't have chosen more convenient opposition to face after defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool than a distracted Blackburn Rovers if he had sat down with a pencil and rubber and drawn up the fixture list himself.
Sam Allardyce, understandably, is more interested in Tuesday night's Carling Cup semi-final between the two sides than this tie, and although the Blackburn manager argued with referee Howard Webb for appearance's sake, his side didn't look too bothered about this at all.
In front of a Villa Park crowd flatter than the leftover champagne from the other night (it was almost quiet enough to hear what the players were saying to each other), Blackburn missed a first-half penalty, and were down to 10 men minutes later. Even the goal they did get seemed an afterthought.
Perhaps it was just prolonged hangovers that kept the crowd quiet; more likely it is that the third round of the FA Cup just doesn't do it for them anymore. Fortunately O'Neill doesn't share their apathy.
True, he made seven changes, but it was one of these, Nathan Delfouneso, who got things going by heading a cross from Ashley Young past Jason Brown. O'Neill has a lot of faith in the 18 year-old, tying him down to a new contract in November, and four goals in six starts is some return.
After the game, O'Neill was full of praise for his young players. He said: "The players are desperate to play. We utilised the squad today and the young lads, Nathan and Fabien, did very well for us." O'Neill also singled out Ashley Young, who was returning from suspension. "Ashley set up the opening two goals and he is a top-quality player who is so important to us."
Having dominated utterly for half an hour, and narrowly missing out on going two up through Young, Villa gave Blackburn an invitation to the party. Steven Reid was brought down in the area by Nigel Reo-Coker -- the midfielder turning, arms raised, forming an alibi as he did so. Webb wasn't to be fooled.
But if there is one goalkeeper you don't want to face from 12 yards this season it is Brad Guzan. The square-jawed American doesn't get many chances to shine, being limited to cameo cup appearances, but he saved a penalty from Alessandro Del Piero in the Peace Cup in the summer and then a further four in the Carling Cup against Sunderland.
First he shakes himself loose as if about to enter a trance, then he falls forward, keeping his feet on the goal-line as rules dictate he must.
By the time the ball is struck he is effectively five feet out from his goal, with momentum on his side. It worked a treat in denying David Dunn. "You get to the point where you almost expect him to save, which is rather unfair on him," O'Neill said. "I'm delighted with him."
To make matters worse for Blackburn, Villa extended their lead just seven minutes later. Then El Hadji Diouf got himself sent off.
First the goal: Young swung in a stock-in-trade free-kick, Carlos Cuellar and James Collins went up together for the same header, the ball settling in the corner of the net. Both men wheeled away in delight, but Cuellar claimed the prize.
As for Diouf, it was a classic case of the Senegal striker's infamous folly. Losing control of the ball near his own corner flag, Diouf responded with a studs-up tackle on Habib Beye. Beye tried to get his international team-mate off the hook, but quite rightly Webb was having none of it and went to his pocket for the red. A grinning Diouf responded by idiotically blowing the crowd kisses.
Emile Heskey could have buried the knife soon into the second half, but he fluffed the chance, which looked a pity rather than a problem until Guzan dropped an inswinging corner and Nikola Kalinic bundled the ball in. Villa finished it off through a John Carew penalty, when the Norwegian was brought down by Gael Givet just before the final whistle.
O'Neill will be happy to have got back to winning ways, as footballers like to say, but he knows Villa will face more serious opposition on Tuesday night.