Thursday, March 20, 2008



The united nations of the Chelsea youth team sent Aston Villa’s youngsters crashing out of the FA Youth Cup last night – a spirited 3-2 win enough to secure progress to the Cup final for the first time since 1961; 4-3 on aggregate.

Villa took the bold decision to waive the regular £3 ticket fee prescribed by the FA for Youth Cup ties; hoping to draw a healthy support to cheer their young lions on to the final for the first time since success over Wayne Rooney’s Everton some six years ago. The unusual spectacle of the typically boisterous Holte End packed with families and young kids taking advantage of the club’s generosity would have encouraged Villa officials that the decision was a well-judged one.

The 10,000-plus crowd enjoyed thrills and spills galore – five goals, countless chances, and two contentious dismissals kept them in their seats right until the denouement of the second-leg tie.

An early Harry Forrester strike from all of 30-yards set the home side on their way – the skilful ex-Watford starlet took advantage of a lack of communication in the Chelsea defence to fire low past the stranded Rhys Taylor. With Villa on the front foot and with the overall advantage in the tie, Forrester again went close soon after but was this time denied by a smart Taylor save.

Following continuous Villa pressure during the opening exchanges, Chelsea’s multinational XI slowly but surely began to find their footing. The technical assuredness of forward Sergio Tejera and explosive French winger Gael Kakuta came to the forefront, as, on 18 minutes, Kakuta slinked inside from his station on the left wing and cut through the home defence with alarming ease. He then clipped the ball to the waiting Tejera who scored from just inside the box with a powerful left-footed shot past Elliott Parish.

The thoroughly-impressive Forrester narrowly failed to convert two chances in the immediate aftermath of Chelsea’s equaliser, following good work from Nathan Delfouneso. However, the visitors always posed a threat on the break, with the Villa defence - marshalled by England under-19 captain Ciaran Clark - straining every sinew to shut out the intricate interplay of Chelsea’s talented frontmen.

With 24 minutes gone, former Racing Club Lens star Kakuta mounted another speedy raid from the left hand-side, just over the half-way line, and with the petrified home defence backing off, he jinked effortlessly inside the area to finish comprehensively at the near post.

The massed ranks that had turned up hoping to roar Villa’s young lions into the final would have feared the worst, with Chelsea’s young guns threatening to turn the occasion sour. Villa though gradually re-asserted a foot-hold in the game, and a Forrester header from Marc Albrighton’s accurate cross glanced just wide of Taylor’s post. Scotsman Barry Bannan - who has earned comparisons with Villa cult hero Gordon Cowans through his stand-out displays in their cup run - then shot straight at the Chelsea ‘keeper just before half-time, when well-placed to grab an equaliser.

With Villa attacking towards the Holte End in the second half, the home side laid siege to the Chelsea goal in an effort to claw back their 2-3 aggregate deficit. Imposing centre-half Clark stayed in an advanced position following one of many corners, but the Villa skipper pulled his 51st minute shot wide of the target after turning to make space in a crowded area.

The influence of tall forward Delfouneso began to shine through around the hour-mark, as the recent graduate to Martin O’Neill’s first-team squad became the focal point for his team’s second half renaissance. He was involved early in the build-up, as the irrepressible Forrester followed up an initial charged-down effort with clever, incisive footwork to beat two men; making space to calmly steer the ball past Taylor with expert precision.

With the hunt well and truly on for a winning goal, Villa lapsed; allowing Kakuta to fashion a glorious opportunity from nothing, which he narrowly failed to convert. Then, with 20 minutes remaining, Adam Phillip emerged from the bench to score within minutes of his arrival – just as he had done in the first leg at Stamford Bridge. Tejera’s precise throughball caught Villa flat-footed, and Phillip took advantage to slot the ball underneath the advancing Parish from close range, putting his team 4-3 up on aggregate.

Soon after, Slovakian winger Miroslav Stoch whipped a low 25-yard free-kick around the Villa wall, but his shot drifted just wide of Parish’s far post.

The closing exchanges of the game were played out as a ten-a-side affair; both sides seeing red following reckless tackles, with the outcome of the game still very much in the balance. First, energetic Chelsea midfielder Lee Sawyer was dismissed for a crude challenge on Harry Forrester, and then, with the clock ticking down, Villa defender Matthew Roome was controversially sent for a not-so-early bath for a foul on substitute Phillip.

Villa responded by launching one final attack, but a desperate effort by sub Andreas Weimann was just off-target; consigning the home team to defeat and sending Chelsea through to a two-legged final against Manchester City. The London club’s youngsters formed a jubilant victory huddle while the Villa players slumped exhaustedly to the turf.

Winning coach Paul Clement said after his side’s hard-fought victory: “It was a real rollercoaster of emotions, but I’m proud of the players."

"We played some good football and showed great character to beat a good Villa team," he continued. "These youngsters have worked extremely hard to get this far and they deserve it.”

Defeated Villa youth boss Tony McAndrew was far from downhearted: “The lads did the whole club proud. They’ve been fantastic and I’m bitterly disappointed for them.”

“Defensively, the three goals we conceded were not great. But it’s a learning curve for our young players – we wanted to send people away talking about them, and I think they’ve definitely done that tonight.”

Friday, March 14, 2008

O'Neill: "We've still got plenty to play for"

With opinion mounting that Villa's push for European football lies dead in the water, manager Martin O'Neill today refuted suggestions that his charges had given up on their lengthy pursuit of Liverpool and Everton for a place in the top 5. He did admit though, that Villa could not afford to produce any further "listless" performances such as that offered up in Wednesday's limp home draw with struggling Middlesborough.

"We can't allow ourselves to play as poorly as that again on Saturday, with the games running down as they are. But, of course, there's still about a quarter of the season left and plenty of points to go for" he said.

For the first time this season, Villa's fans turned on the players; booing them off at half-time in the game against Gareth Southgate's side, and their reception on the final whistle was barely any more positive. But O'Neill turned down flat any lingering accusations that his team had taken their mid-week opponents lightly. "We're simply not good enough to do that. We just haven't got that capability within our squad. It was frustrating, but for some reason we couldn't turn our first half performance around like we did against Newcastle."

A buoyant Portsmouth side, which the Villa boss labelled "strong favourites" to lift the FA Cup, will undoubtedly provide an even sterner test, despite their dire home record this season to date. Since spectacularly thumping seven past a porous Reading defence back in late September, Pompey have struggled to score with any regularity in front of the Fratton Park faithful.

Instead, an experienced back-line featuring the likes of Sylvain Distin, Sol Campbell and David James - the recent recipient of a fresh two-year contract which will extend the former Villa stopper's career into his forties - has been the key to the south coast side's continued success.

England goalkeeping coach Franco Tancredi will be running the rule over both James and his current international understudy Scott Carson at Fratton this Saturday, but O'Neill refused to be drawn on which of the two 'keepers he would select, theoretically at least, for the England side.

"I'm not bothered about that," he said. But the Ulsterman did agree that James has been "absolutely splendid" over the past 18 months. The 37-year-old's physique and conditioning should be "something for (Carson) to aspire to," he added. "It is very possible he could play at the next World Cup (aged 40)," said O'Neill; citing the example of Pat Jennings' appearance at Mexico '86 at the same age as a precedent.

Villa remain "hopeful" that Gabby Agbonlahor will shake off his foot injury in time to make the southbound trip. Craig Gardner, withdrawn at half-time against 'Boro with a back injury is "struggling". The versatile youngster would most likely be relegated to the bench in any case, due to Turin-bound Olof Mellberg's return to full fitness. Patrik Berger though will not be considered for a return to his former employers, needing another reserve game or two to re-find his match-sharpness.

The thorny issue of Stiliyan Petrov's waning Villa Park career also continues to dog his long-faithful boss. Though O'Neill insists that the midfielder is doing "exceptionally well" in training, there has been little sign of the ex-Celtic man consistently translating such form to his appearances in the Premier League; his confidence visibly ebbing away with each pass that went astray during his last start against Newcastle last month. The Bulgarian is unlikely to return to the the first XI this time out.

O'Neill also took the opportunity to issue a categorical denial that he had held talks with in-form Pompey forward Jermain Defoe at the club's Bodymoor Heath training facility during the January transfer window, as had been reported by sections of the local press. While Villa may currently be lacking the potent goal-threat of a striker such as Defoe, their boss remains confident that his side can take home all three points from Saturday's crucial fixture.

"We really should have beaten Arsenal in our last away game," said O'Neill, "but we're definitely ready to go for this one."