A dominant Villa side left it late to seal a place in the next round of the Carling Cup. And whilst there were no major concerns to emanate from the game, one or two figures might be secretly worrying McLeish.
The objective in these types of games is simple for a team like Villa. Realistically the Carling Cup represents our only winnable competition. Therefore, had the team been knocked out then yet another season would slip past without the prospect of silverware. Getting past Hereford, very much down on their luck right now near the foot of the football league, made the fixture quietly important in the grand scheme of Villa’s season.
And it should have been no surprise that despite making eight changes to a team that won comfortably against Blackburn last weekend, the lineup included our record signing Darren Bent and seasoned pro Richard Dunne. Indeed it was the latter whose steady play at the back saw to it that Hereford barely registered a chance.
The 22,000 who rolled out on a Tuesday evening got to spy on the likes of Stephen Ireland, who evidently remains our ‘Marmite’ player. Ireland played well, showing some neat football, always looking to unlock play in the final third and who looks like a player who can deliver an incisive pass through mere instinct. 90 minutes will have done him well and he displayed enough, albeit versus Hereford, to suggest he could press for a first team berth. However, despite his strong performance, there were a number on the Holte End desperate to get on his back at every opportunity. The logic behind which is entirely flawed as we seek to rehabilitate him for our own means – or indeed put him in the shop window for others.
Other who impressed included Herd, Clark and the growing stock of Eric Lichaj. The Australian Herd has ditched the surfer boy haircut, grown into his limbs and put in a fine performance, perhaps his most assured to date. Clark continues to look like the future of the centre of the Villa defence and another calm and un-neverving performance alongside the experienced Dunne does much to inspire. And finally the American Lichaj, rewarded with a goal for his perseverance, is perhaps one who remains a little under the radar. Consistently solid when he appears, he is starting to look ready to make the step up to regular first team duties. Things look largely bright from the academy.
Which warrants special mention for Barry Bannan. His diminutive figure exploited a Hereford side whose game plan appeared to be based around remaining behind the ball. Bannan had the freedom on the centre of the park and exploited this repeatedly with a range of passing and vision, that whilst not always afforded in the Premiership, reminded fans of this youngsters potential.
Indeed the entire first half was centred around Bannan and Ireland mercilessly attempting to unpick the Hereford lock. Only fine goalkeeping and wasteful finishing prevented the tie being wrapped up before half time, with Bent and Ireland being guilty of missing chances that appeared easier to score.
At the break one wondered if it was to be one of those nights, and this feeling grew ever stronger as 80 minutes ticked over on the scoreboard as the second half progressed.
The second period saw some changes as McLeish took the opportunity to rest the legs of the lively N’Zogbia and prized asset Bent. The removal of N’Zogbia prompted Bannan moving to the flank and Delfouneso adopting his more natural attacking position. This unbalanced the Villa side, isolating our only lively creativity in Bannan and prompted Hereford to provide their only scare of the match. Villa conceded a freekick which was whipped across the face of goal, the faintest of touches would likely have resulted in the visitors taking the lead, and probably pandemonium afterwards. However, fortunately, the dangerous ball narrowly missed the rooted Guzan’s far post. Relief? Certainly.
Hereford failed to build upon this brief lack of order and Villa resumed their duties hammering at their door. Bent’s replacement Wiemann came on and took on the role of man on a mission. The promising U21 Austrian international, whose early Villa career has been limited owing to a knee injury during pre-season in Vienna last year, looks a talent indeed.
Wiemann appeared eager to impress and battled for the ball in the middle third repeatedly before driving forward on a couple of occasions putting the Hereford defence into retreat. Wiemann was denied a goal as a deep cross was lifted away from his head at the last moment and also a powerful drive took a wicked deflection that saw his effort crash the top of the bar.
Villa’s opener came in typical goalmouth scramble fashion with the ball reverbarating around the penalty box before before turned in by Lichaj, who was jubiliant in his celebration. The stress lifted with the seemingly inevitable goal finally, finally, in the back of the net.
A matter of minutes later the fixture was settled. Andreas Wiemann’s promise was further demonstrated as he somehow managed to re-direct an overhit cross back into the goalmouth for the otherwise anonymous Delfouneso to seal the tie. The goal will register as Delfouneso’s but the guile was all Wiemann’s.
And with that the tie drew to a close – job done, in a drawn out, but effective fashion nonetheless. Positives for McLeish will be the sturdy winning performance that was error and injury free. However he might have a little concern about the worrying lack of form of both Marc Albrighton and Jean II Makoun in their initial showings this season.
That aside, Villa go relatively stress free into the next round of the Carling Cup. Which is always welcome. Up next, a local derby at home to Wolves in the Premiership. Oh the joys of a new football season!