Guadiana Cup: Benfica 4 Aston Villa 1
Aston Villa have concerns over their creaking defence after falling to Benfica in the Guadiana Cup in Portugal.
The Portuguese champions retained their crown with a convincing 4-1 victory which made them clear winners of the triangular tournament.
But Carlos Cuellar’s hamstring strain added injury to insult as Martin O’Neill’s men departed the Algarve on the brink of a defensive crisis.
The Spaniard joins James Collins, who has a calf problem, on the treatment table leaving Villa down to just two fit senior centre-halves with the Premier League season 12 days away.
Villa insist Cuellar was taken off as a precaution and are hopeful the former Rangers favourite’s problem is not too severe.
But O’Neill could do without the headache of arguably his strongest department being understaffed at a time when he is keen to strengthen other areas of his squad.
It is a similar situation to when they returned from the Peace Cup a year ago – only back then at least they had some pre-season silverware to slightly soften the blow.
Last summer there was a hint of Curtis Davies’ injury woes when he dislocated his shoulder during Villa’s triumph in the tournament in Spain and despite starting the season he then suffered a long lay-off.
But the transfer-listed defender might yet benefit from Cuellar and Collins’ troubles with Richard Dunne the only other available experienced centre-back.
However, Davies was powerless to prevent Benfica roaring into a 3-0 half-time lead. Villa ran into pumped up opponents who were motivated further by an excitable stadium announcer and a partisan home crowd.
As well as lifting the Guadiana Cup last year, Benfica also won their domestic league and made the Europa League quarter-finals where they were knocked out by Liverpool.
So Villa knew they were in for a competitive encounter against high pedigree opponents whose up and at em approach was more ‘frenzied’ than ‘friendly.
The claret and blues have gradually increased their fitness throughout their practice matches – but they were up against a team who seemed half a yard faster.
There was also the matter of the Jabulani – the controversial ball from the World Cup – which, having helped Marc Albrighton and Steve Sidwell score belters against Feyenoord, kept whizzing into Villa’s net last night.
Although, David Luis’ low long-range 11th minute opener, after the Benfica defender out-muscled Nathan Delfouneso inside Villa’s half, owed more to a massive deflection than the lightness of the ball.
The Jabulani appeared to play more of a part in the second goal on 37 minutes when Jara tried his luck from distance and Friedel struggled to keep sight of the swirling shot with Saviola stroking in the rebound.
Benfica made it three on 44 minutes when Dunne escaped with a booking for a late foul on Jara who stepped over the 20-yard free-kick before Cardoso smashed a screamer into the top left corner.
Villa’s only real effort on goal before the break came when their star of pre-season Marc Albrighton killed a deep cross from Ashley Young with a fine first touch and sent an angled volley skidding inches past the post.
O’Neill tried to shake things up at the break by replacing Emile Heskey, Ashley Young and Nicky Shorey with Nigel Reo-Coker, Stewart Downing and Stephen Warnock.
It eventually had the desired effect with the claret and blues giving a much better account of themselves during the second-half.
But Benfica still scored their fourth on 50 minutes when Jara capitalised on a slip from Davies down Villa’s right flank and calmly pulled the ball back for Saviola who scored his second with a smart finish past Friedel.
And the former Real Madrid striker almost completed his hat-trick moments later when Villa’s defence stopped and waited for an offside flag which never came and the unmarked Argentine headed against the post.
It was developing into a night to forget for a strong Villa line-up which included Luke Young making his first appearance following his aborted move to Liverpool and Saturday’s surprise thigh strain.
For the second night running confusion reigned about James Milner’s absence from the squad with the official team-sheet actually including the Manchester City target in O’Neill’s first XI.
It turned out to be an oversight on behalf of the competition’s administrators rather than the Villa manager with Milner still sidelined by a back problem which flared up on Friday.
John Carew was supposed to be in from the start but hurt his leg in the warm-up and had to sit with ice on the affected area throughout the first-half to ease the pain.
But Carew kept his cool to score a well taken consolation goal on 69 minutes after finally entering the fray as a substitute for Delfouneso just before the hour mark.
And his cameo role was the highlight of a frustrating evening for the 600-strong claret and blue army of travelling fans who are anxious to learn if Carew will get an extension to a contract with just a year to run.
Carew almost pulled another goal back from fellow substitute Stewart Downing’s threaded pass as Villa rallied to restore some pride in the final quarter of the game, but the big Norwegian’s deft chip over Benfica keeper Roberto was hacked off the line by a defender.
With the game and the destination of the trophy wrapped up, Benfica began to take their foot off the pedal and Villa enjoyed their best spell of the evening.
Even then, however, they rarely looked like adding to Carew’s solitary strike and young Austrian Andreas Weimann was sent on in place of Albrighton to freshen up the attack for the final 10 minutes. The youngster was wearing the No.9 shirt vacated by Marlon Harewood, but Weimann will be hoping for more first team football than the departed striker.
Villa did create a couple of chances in the closing stages of the contest with Sidwell involved in both of them.
First the Fulham target blazed over from close range with the goal at his mercy.
And then neither Sidwell nor Carew could find a way past Roberto from just outside the six yard box - the keeper bravely standing up to preserve the Portuguese giants’ three goal lead.
Having already won the Guadiana Cup three times in 2002, 2007 and 2009, Jorge Jesus’ team celebrated their fourth by cheerily taking to the podium at the Vila Rea de Santo Antonio Stadium for the celebration ceremony.
And while the victors hope their successful cup defence will set them up nicely for their Champions League involvement, Villa hope their defence will be back up to full strength for their imminent Premier League and Europa League campaigns.
With Stiliyan Petrov nipping off into the changing rooms, Davies stepped forward to collect the runners-up silverware for the claret and blues.
And the former West Brom skipper will hope it signifies the start of a more hands on role.
Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Dunne, Cuellar (Davies 12), Shorey (Warnock 46); Albrighton (Weimann 84), Petrov, Sidwell, Young (Downing 46); Delfouneso (Carew 57), Heskey (Reo-Coker 46). Subs not used: Guzan, Bannan, Lichaj, Clark, Beye.
Benfica (4-3-3): Roberto; Amorim, Luisao, Luis, Coentrao; Martins, Airtiom, Aimar (Peixoto 64); Jara, Saviola (Kardec 64), Cardaso (Gaitain 64). Subs not used: Moreira, Filipe, Faria, Sidnei, Garcia, Ramires, Menezes, Weldon, Roderick.