To say Aston Villa cruised through to the next round of the FA Cup wouldn’t be strictly true. That is, because, the word cruise summons up images of warmth, cocktails and sandy beaches. Villa Park today was as far removed from this utopia as possible. It was freezing cold, raw, and though I had a drink, it was fused to my fingers by the icy chill in the air.
But let’s put aside Britain’s fine climate for just a moment. The Houllier revolution continued today after another win against a Blackburn team with enough invention about them to have caused us some difficulties. The team selection again raised some eyebrows, but at full time no one could argue that the players on the pitch had completed a professional job. And at least one thing is for certain, we can’t possibly draw Blackburn in the cup again this season. But wait, who do we play again at home on the 26th of February? Blackburn bloody Rovers..
Villa started brightly, attacking the Holte End and appeared keen to push on Blackburn’s back four at every opportunity. Gabby and the Fonz assumed wide positions and caused difficulty for the Rovers full backs – resulting in the corner that led to Blackburn initially clearing off the line – then conceding from the following set piece. Ciaran Clark on the score-sheet again with a fine header. The more that I see from Clark, the more that I’m impressed by his composure on the ball at the back and his threat in the air going forward. All good stuff and 1-0 to Villa.
Santa Cruz had limped off with less than ten minutes gone and appeared to be struggling with a thigh/groin injury. Kalinic was his replacement and delivered the equaliser after some questionable Villa defending. Michel “older than God” Salgado found himself released down the byline and delivered a low ball which Kalinic contrived his best to miss – the linesman calling it in. No complaints from the Villa players (1-1). The collective groan of the Villa Park faithful pretty much summed up the mood – nobody wanted to freeze their plums off midweek at Ewood Park for the replay.
Villa moved the ball around well all match and the continued improvement in our passing must be highlighted. We have for too many years had “luxury” players that couldn’t deliver the basics. Therefore, it’s amazing how much easier the game becomes when players retain possession and keep passes short. Which brings me to Pires.
Robert Pires is a player who’s best days are far far behind him. His signing remains a puzzle to most Villa fans, but today we saw perhaps a glimmer of the old midfielder. Whilst he did nothing outstanding, he did very little wrong and made a number of clever passes that ordinarily we do not have the experience, or indeed, the brains to do.
The best example is the frequently observed Villa “quick free-kick” that usually ends with the ball going out of play, bouncing through to the opposition keeper or simply back to the other team. Barry Bannan, worryingly, is afflicted by this. I noticed a couple of times today Pires instructing others or making himself available in close proximity to the taker. It might not be spectacular and isn’t always what fans want to see, but careful, thoughtful play has been at a premium in recent years for Villa.
Anyway, my Pires love in is over. Following Blackburn’s equaliser we needed someone to take “that” chance with a cool head. The ball was swept across on the break and reached Pires lurking around the penalty spot and on the half volley he finished with ease high into the top left of the net. A clinical composed finish was exactly what was needed and he delivered.
And then something unusual happened. Something that under Martin O’Neill we were punished for time and time again for. Killing a game off.
Nathan Delfouneso had worked hard for most of the first half. Delfouneso is another of Villa’s players who are being asked to ply their trade outside of their comfort zone out wide. He ran and probed continually. I have my doubts about the Fonz’s overall capability as I think his time to prove that he’s got what it takes is now, but in recent appearances we are all seeing the potential. Be it rattling the bar at Birmingham, or a match sealing goal today.
The ball was delivered into the box and Delfouneso jumped well and directed a downward header past the scrambling Robinson. The keeper could have done better, the ball hit the back of the net and the rest is history.
The half time whistle went, the crowd attempted to defrost and the club decided to make small children freeze to death doing a penalty shoot-out. All character building stuff.
The second half contained a number of the things that make Villa infuriating to watch. If my lips hadn’t been welded shut by cold I might have voiced them. The defence was not our regular back four so not a great deal can be gleaned I know, but poor play is poor play. Our attempts to self destruct at times were unbelievable. Kyle Walker, for all of his attacking strengths coming from deep appears prone to naivety when it comes to his defending. And distribution across the back gave us problems where mere seconds before we were in complete control.
So let’s talk about Nathan Baker. Baker was sent off midway through the second half for a strong challenge on Blackburn’s impressive and tricky Hoilett. The tackle looked committed live and has since been described as a “two-footed lunge” – either way it resulted in a straight red card for Baker on only his second league appearance. Without the benefit of having seen a replay as yet it would be foolish of me to call it either way. But there are a few things that I reflected on from the Holte End.
Firstly was the position of the referee. He was unsighted to the challenge and must have made some portion of his decision based upon the reaction to it from either the Blackburn bench or their players. Next was the fact that the official gave himself no time to even make the decision, the red card was produced instantly. There wasn’t a moments thought, thus meaning that the simple conviction of the challenge alone warranted a sending off.
The other thing that bothered me was not Nathan Baker’s inexperience or his misplaced show of commitment, it was the crass stupidity. We all love to see players getting stuck in, committing to challenges and putting in 100%. Indeed this is the kind of work that Reo-Coker thrives on week in week out. But Baker’s challenge wasn’t clever. In fact it was pointless. Less than ten yards from the halfway line; did it need to be won in that manner?
Villa were fortunate to be largely unaffected by the loss of a body. The now static Pires was replaced by Marc Albrighton to add an out ball and some legs but Blackburn crafted little of note. Which brings me neatly to Blackburn, who’s travelling fans must wonder why on earth they follow such a frequently dismal team.
I wrote just yesterday about my expectations that Rovers would have one eye on the team bus, because they are so predictable. Hoilett aside (and even he’s annoying) I saw absolutely nothing that would excite me from them. They were lethargic, ponderous and lacked any drive or creativity. At no point, even after Villa went down to ten men, did Blackburn build any sustained pressure or concern for the defence. And to bring on Benjani, well, that’s just offensive.
Overall Villa performed efficiently and are making fine progress in terms of form and momentum. It is a good thing to be involved in the FA Cup and after the lows of the first half of the season, it’s nice to look forward to matches again. Fingers crossed for a favourable draw – Blues rematch anyone?
Next up for Villa is a league fixture at Old Trafford against Manchester United – Undefeated this season.