The outsiders. Up against the current league champions, dressed in green and gold. A chance for them to prove their worth on the Wembley stage after running out of steam in the league the season before. Two football matches are never the same but, as the stage gets set for this year’s Carling Cup Final, there are remarkable similarities with that of the Coca Cola Cup Final of 1994.
27th March 1994, Ron Atkinson got one over his old employer by leading his Aston Villa side to a 3-1 victory over Manchester United. The season before, despite Villa leading for much of the season, their title challenge faded. United pounced and lifted their first title in twenty six years. United won’t be wearing a green and gold strip on this occasion but expect to see their fans colouring their end of Wembley with the mark of their anti- Glazer protest.
Villa lined up with a five man midfield against a full strength United side, minus Schmeichel (suspended) chasing a domestic treble. Dalian Atkinson and two from Dean Saunders upset the odds with United only contributing to the scoring through Mark Hughes.
Since that cup final win, Villa have only managed the same honour three years later. They beat Leeds 3-0. You can count that list with one hand. You will need not only both hands but both sets of toes to count United’s.
Since that victory against Leeds, Villa have had mediocre league finishes, ranging from as high as 4th in 1996 to 16th in 2006. Brain Little got off to a promising start but like his managerial counterparts, Gregory and O’ Leary, ended up sacked. Graham Taylor retired sharply after his second stint at the club in 2003.
England’s loss of missing out on Martin O’ Neil in 2006 was to Villa’s gain. Since he has been brought in and Randy Lerner has become the new owner, Villa have made steady progress. Back to back finishes in 6th place in the last two seasons. They have snapped up a number of promising English talents and have beaten each of the top four teams over the last two years. Sunday gives Villa the chance to take the next step on the ladder.
Before the 2006 cup final against Wigan, Sir Alex Ferguson stated that it was worth winning the Carling Cup as not every one of the top clubs in the land would finish the season with silverware. The last five finals have been competed by at least one of the ‘Big Four’. This would suggest that while managers will rotate their squads, the top sides cannot disregard the competition like the days of the mid 90’s.
The last side outside the ‘Big Four’ to win the competition was Tottenham in 2008. Managerial problems meant the London club didn’t take the forward step up the ladder at the time but like Villa, are in a position to break the top four.
One common criticism of Arsene Wenger is why he doesn’t put out his strongest side in the domestic cup competitions and build from there as they haven’t won a trophy since 2005. He has bled the current crop through the tournament and did come close in 2007, but the history books remember the clubs that win the trophies. As much entertaining football is on the eye. O’ Neil has the opportunity to use success of a victory on Sunday as springboard and to gather momentum for the closing months in the chase for 4th spot. Villa are better prepared for the run in this season. A year’s more experience for their young stars. A bigger and better squad and results of the league’s campaign going against their usual patterns.
The next step up the ladder for Villa is to deliver on their potential. They have six players that will start on Sunday who each will feel they have a great opportunity in making Fabio Capello’s World Cup Squad. Four of which have the potential to be pushing for a starting place by the time 2014 comes around. They have a manager hungry to build on his highest league position of 6th and add bigger prizes to The League Cups he has won. Unlike Wenger, by taking steady calculated steps up the ladder instead of a giant leap, O’ Neil might find his squad sticks together and not be tempted by transfers and lavishing contracts that may well come their way.
Their fans may be frustrated with the activity in the transfer market last summer but will feel their players have a chance against United on Sunday. They mirrored United’s 4-5-1 formation in the recent game at Villa Park but with Heskey fit for this latest encounter, O’ Neil will be better advised to revert to the 4-4-2 which hit Burnley for six at the weekend. United have looked shaky at the back in recent games. Johnny Evans has been error prone in United’s last recent games. Putting Heskey against him could give the Northern Ireland international all sort of problems, Heskey could bring Villa’s wide men and Milner into the game. With Ferdinand injured, Vidic is due to return but questions against how match fit he will be could well be exploited by the pace of Agbonlahor. Lennon gave Evra a torrid time in last year’s final encouraging Villa’s wide men to get at him and Neville or Rafael at right back. The hardest decision O’ Neil needs to make is his choice of goalkeeper. Guzan has started every round but looked erratic in the two legs against Blackburn. Surely for the occasion Friedel must return?
Defeat to the hands of Leeds in The FA Cup saw Ferguson back track on his plans to field the fridge players that beat Tottenham in the quarter finals. He went full strength against rivals City and with the prospect of yet another trophy drawing nearer, is likely to go full strength again. Expect the 4-5-1 formation that has served him well in recent weeks. With Nani and Giggs out, Park and Valencia are likely to operate the wings and will put competitive shifts in against the ever changing opposition they are likely to face in Young and Downing. A lot will rest again on Rooney’s shoulders but will need support from the flair of Evra down the left and Valencia will need similar deliveries to the one he supplied United’s top scorer with against West Ham on Tuesday and Milan last week. This decision that Ferguson needs to address more than any other is in defence. It’s likely that Vidic will partner Evans at the back, now Ferdinand is ruled out. One man short of games, the other short on confidence and form. His other option is Brown. Ferguson needs to get the tactics right against the pacey and powerful forward line of Villa. Expect him though to have a twist up his sleeve and spring a surprise with his tactics or line up.
Villa has a 100% record in cup finals against United. In 1957 they won 2-1 in the FA Cup Final. Like the similarities of the 1994 final, that league season too saw United win the league. Which set of supporters will take more comport from these fact? History can then repeat itself, even if two football matches are never the same.
Written By Luke Harrison