Martin O’Neill is clearly treating the Carling Cup final as Aston Villa’s biggest game since their last appearance in a cup final, which was the F.A. Cup final of 2000. The Villa manager has had his team in London since Thursday ahead of Sunday’s showpiece occasion. O’Neill will feel that a club of Villa’s size should be appearing in domestic cup finals and are at a stage when they should be winning silverware.
A problem for Aston Villa is the fact the opponents are Manchester United- a team that has the ‘know how’ in Wembley finals. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have been there and done it before, whereas for Villa this match comes around as a long overdue appearance in a major final. One thing is for sure and that is O’Neill will not be cautious in his team’s approach, nor will he be daunted by the task ahead of them. His track record in league cup finals is something he can look back on with success as well- he has previously guided Leicester City to Wembley victories in 1997 and 2000.
If Villa fans wanted some hope in statistical form it is that they have the edge over United in league cup finals. Villa have won five compared to United’s three. The last time these two teams met at Wembley to contest this cup was in 1994 and the midlands team claimed one of their five victories that day with a 3-1 score line. Even though it is hard to for a team like Manchester United to suffer psychologically, due to their amount of success and appearances in major finals, Ferguson will know that they have failed to beat Villa in the two Premiership fixtures this season. It is something that the holders will not be affected by and it is unlikely to be in their thoughts, but it could serve Villa well knowing that they have not suffered crushing defeats to a team that they face in a cup final.
A lot has been made over the team that Manchester United will select, whether it is experienced or a mixture of youngsters, but you can be sure that Aston Villa will be at full strength. Even though only Stewart Downing and Emile Heskey are the only Villa players to have played in a major cup final, O’Neill will have drummed it in to the squad that their first final should be a stage on which they should have the ability to flourish on. Villa recently put Burnley to the sword and the confidence gained from such a performance can never be underestimated. Goals have been spread through the team, with the likes of James Milner and Stewart Downing chipping in, along with the strikers. They have many positives to take in to the match.
Tactically speaking, Villa’s midfield power could be the key to them winning or losing. If Milner, Downing, Ashley Young and Stiliyan Petrov are at the top of their game then they can provide a real test for United’s midfield, and stop them dictating the game. With United missing Rio Ferdinand then the midlands club will feel that they can give their opponents unsteady defence a torrid afternoon. In addition to that, Villa have the pace to put United on the back foot and the Manchester team will be aware of the fact that Villa’s counter-attacking skills are just as good as theirs.
The question of how much Villa want this victory can be answered by looking at the celebrations that took place at Villa Park following their semi-final win. The pitch invasion just identified how much their fans want this. Taking home the trophy would prove that Villa are capable of producing on a big occasion and it would be the ideal springboard to take the club further. A lot gets said about the value of the league cup and whether or not it is a trophy worth winning. Good luck convincing Martin O’Neill and the Villa faithful with that one.