FA Cup fifth Round: Everton 3 Aston Villa 1
The consolation of concentrating on the league often does little to console supporters when their team’s run comes to an end in a cup they realistically dreamed of winning.
However, there was plenty to soften the blow for Aston Villa’s travelling army on their miserable return trip down the M6 motorway.
Ultimately, a break in a congested calender for Villa’s players to rest their weary legs could prove more important than a prestigious trip to Wembley.
O’Neill would never admit as much and the manager craves the one English trophy that has eluded him during a career laden with silverware.
However, the much-needed respite Villa’s FA Cup elimination brings to the Premier League’s smallest squad could yet be a blessing in disguise.
Doubts about whether this cup tie could match, in terms of excitement, the thrilling December 7 league encounter were answered emphatically during the action-packed opening exchanges.
Having led through Steve Sidwell’s goal after just 34 seconds – the top flight’s fastest strike of the season – on their previous trip to Goodison Park, Villa were stunned by a quick-fire opener.
It took Jack Rodwell a little bit longer than his midfield opponent to break the deadlock - four minutes to be precise - although it was a just reward for Everton’s energetic start.
Stiliyan Petrov thought he had rescued Villa after stretching to divert Tim Cahill’s header from a Mikel Arteta corner away from goal, only for Rodwell to smash in the rebound from a tight angle.
Replays suggested Petrov had in fact handled the ball on the line and Everton manager David Moyes later complained that the Bulgarian international should have been sent off for the offence.
Moyes’ men are unbeaten at home since Villa’s smash and grab two months ago, although any thoughts they had of protecting their slender one-goal lead were soon redundant.
A slick move through the middle released Gabriel Agbonlahor into the box and when he was tripped by Tony Hibbert referee Martin Atkinson was right to award a penalty.
James Milner, having clinically despatched a winning spot-kick at Gillingham in the third round, again made no mistake, although his effort trickled under the body of Tim Howard.
An excruciating shoulder injury to Curtis Davies, one of only two fit Villa centre-halves
available for selection, exposed their lack of defensive cover, and he played on through the pain.
Everton, themselves suffering a striker shortage, capitalised upon their visitors’ soft centre to regain the lead thanks to the strength of fit-again forward Victor Anichebe on 24 minutes.
After bursting past the ailing Davies, the Nigerian youngster was allowed to advance into the box where he was illegally impeded by Sidwell’s mistimed challenge.
With the referee again pointing to the spot, Arteta stepped up to score his effort much more decisively than Milner, sending Brad Friedel the wrong way with a cool finish.
The Toffees, who had Cahill booked for trying to convert a cross with his hand, went close when Dan Gosling cut in on his right foot and fired a yard wide and Anichebe twice threatened after using his physique to overpower the claret and blue backline, while for Villa, Davies failed to make proper contact with Milner’s corner.
However, it was Agbonlahor who spurned an opportunity, which can only be described as a ‘sitter’, when Ashley Young’s curling ball from the left hit his shoulder rather than his head and bounced wide from four yards out.
Agbonlahor was reunited with strike partner John Carew, in as a replacement for Emile Heskey who aggravated his Achilles problem on England duty, and the big Norwegian, in his first league start since November, came closest to an equaliser after the break.
Carew latched on to a right-wing cross from the typically industrious Milner and flicked a clever effort towards the bottom left corner which Howard expertly clawed to safety at full stretch.
But other than Carew’s effort and a misdirected header from Sidwell, whose blushes were spared by the assistant referee’s flag, there were just a couple of off-target efforts from Young and Agbonlahor, whose scuffed strike nearly went out for a throw.
Everton’s Cahill served notice of his intent with a header from Leighton Baines’ cross which forced Friedel to save at the far post, and it was the Toffees’ Antipodean attacker who sealed Villa’s fate 14 minutes from time.
Cahill, having started the move with a ball to the left, struck with a miss-hit finish from 10 yards out after a mistake by Davies who failed to cut out a curling ball from Anichebe.
It was a knockout blow for Villa’s FA Cup hopes, but with a top four finish and the Uefa Cup still on the horizon, the claret and blue cup is still more full than empty.