Last February, Martin O’Neill angered thousands of Aston Villa fans by contributing to his sides exit in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup. His decision to omit no fewer than eight first team regulars and travel to Moscow with an inexperienced side was met with disdain by the Aston Villa faithful as they watched their side relinquish any hope of European success with little fight. O’Neill’s logic was understandable yet arguably incorrect. His side sat in 4th place in the Premier League, 6 points comfortably above Arsenal and just one behind Chelsea in 3rd. The Irishman felt his side could do without the distraction of European competitions and opted to focus on Champions League qualification, surrendering his sides place in the UEFA Cup for ‘the greater good’.
It proved to be a costly error for O’Neill, who watched his side endure a torrid final third of the season, eventually finishing in 6th place; ten points shy of the coveted top four. Fast forward the clock almost a year and O’Neill finds himself in a similar predicament, this time with the League Cup. His Aston Villa side face Blackburn in the Carling Cup semi-final, having dispatched of Portsmouth in the previous round with relative ease and fans will rightly have reason to feel optimistic about their chances of bringing silverware to Villa Park for the first time since 1996.
Villa were however, one side that did not enjoy the festive period. O’Neill saw his side overturned by a magnificent second half display by Arsenal at the Emirates and then had to endure the agony of a last minute goal against Liverpool just two days later. With tonight’s match having already been postponed, it is likely that the competition will further interfere with O’Neill’s league schedule. So what is more important, league success or cup glory?
Richard Dunne has recently highlighted the importance of cup glory to him and I personally agree with his comments. Despite being 30-years-old himself, Dunne never reached Wembley during his time with Manchester City and is determined to do so with the Midlands side. The Irish centre-back said:
“For every footballer, the aim, when they look back on their career, is to have a medal to show for it. Every footballer in the Premier League will more or less finish his career having enough money. Whether they’re fulfilled is different. For players to feel fulfilled, you have to have actual silverware to look back on. That’s where your memories are. All of us go into this game knowing that we’re close to having that opportunity. But the main thing is to focus on the semi-final and not to get carried away with the lure of Wembley.”
Dunne may be just showing his own personal desires, or he may also be giving a subtle that O’Neill’s intentions are not just focused on the Champions League this season. Aston Villa have an excellent opportunity to capture this trophy given the strength of their side and the circumstances of the competition. With the utmost respect intended for Blackburn Rovers, Villa have the easier of the two semi-finals and have the mental edge over Sam Allardyce’s men considering they dumped them out of the F.A Cup just 3 days ago. Villa remain undefeated in the League this season against both Manchester sides and the competition will be far lower down on Alex Ferguson’s list of priorities and whilst we are yet to find out where it lies on Roberto Mancini’s, you can bet that a great deal of their passion and effort will be focused on the semi-final rivalry and maybe not as much on the actual trophy.
Villa have the strength and depth in their squad this season to enable them to compete on more than one front. ‘Rotation’ is a word that O’Neill has been trying to introduce at Villa Park and since its disastrous results in Russia last year, it is a philosophy that has experienced a great deal of success. I do not see O’Neill making the same mistake again and expect the Irishman to field near his strongest team against Allardyce’s side. The prospect of a date with Wembley is one that is long overdue at Villa Park and Villa’s dedicated fans will no doubt be hoping their side find themselves at the famous ground on the 28th February.
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