Aston Villa 1 Burnley 0
With a crawl rather than a gallop, Aston Villa moved into the fourth round of the League Cup, but they will need to play better than this if they are to have any hope of progressing-farther. The result was morale-boosting, even if the performance was not.
The only time Villa resembled a Premiership team was when they scored, through Kevin Phillips, in the 22nd minute. Otherwise, in a match that did nothing to raise the spirits on a windy night, this was a midfield stalemate. The sweetest sound was the final whistle.
The history books show that whenever Villa defeat Burnley in the League Cup, they go on to win the competition. That statistic, rather than present form, will stand Villa in good stead.
A year ago, Villa lost 3-1 to Burnley in the same competition. This time, while there was no likelihood of a repeat, there was never a suggestion that Villa were the superior of the teams. They lacked the imagination to find space in a congested midfield but had, in James Milner, the best player on the pitch.
David O'Leary made three changes to the team that lost 2-0 in the Premiership at home to Wigan Athletic last Saturday. Mark Delaney replaced Aaron Hughes at right back, Gavin McCann replaced Eirik Bakke in the centre of midfield and Juan Pablo Angel replaced Luke Moore up front. The return of McCann, after a month on the sidelines, was particularly significant, for Villa have struggled in his absence.
Burnley arrived with Ade Akinbiyi, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers striker, and a 4-5-1 formation that was designed to smother Villa in the midfield. James O'Connor, formerly of West Bromwich Albion, seemed to exemplify their no-nonsense approach.
While Villa enjoyed much of the possession in the opening stages, they found it difficult to find space in the final third of the pitch, but they nevertheless took the lead with a fine goal by Phillips in the 22nd minute.
After good work involving Angel and Milner, Phillips found himself clear on goal and he calmly slotted the ball home past former Albion goalkeeper Brian Jensen from close range. But the goal did not sum up the first-half performance. Villa were too pedestrian, too lacking in ideas, to create anything that resembled excitement.
Indeed, for the most part, it was difficult to tell which of the two teams was of Premiership stock and which was from the Coca- Cola Championship.
Phillips was lively enough but suffered for lack of support. McCann and Steven Davis acquitted themselves well in midfield but, in an effort to find space, they were forced to play deeper than was perhaps appropriate.
Clear-cut chances were virtually non-existent; frustration for the crowd was plentiful. The second half followed a similar pattern: wastefulness from Villa, enthusiasm from Burnley.
But, as a spectacle, this was a grim occasion, played out in front of a low crowd. This was not a good advert for the League Cup.
Still, there was much in the way of effort. Akinbiyi barely tested Thomas Sorensen, the Villa goalkeeper, with a bicycle kick, while Phillips was no more successful with a similar effort at the other end.
In an effort to instil some urgency, O'Leary replaced Angel with Moore in the 75th minute, but Burnley were on top by this time. Even Akinbiyi, much maligned in a career that has taken in a host of Midlands clubs, seemed to look on top of his game.
But Moore raised the tempo and he came close to scoring in the 85th minute when he teased the Burnley defenders, made ground inside the penalty area, but was disappointed to see his angled shot saved by Jensen.
Burnley went even closer two minutes later but Daniel Karbassiyoon, the substitute,
lost his composure at the crucial moment, and saw his close-range shot deflected wide.
Burnley will feel they deserved an equaliser - and they probably did - but Villa scraped through. Just.