Martin O’Neill’s cast of understudies expressed their satisfaction at guiding Aston Villa to within touching distance of the knock-out stages of the Uefa Cup.
Half a dozen of O’Neill’s fringe players repaid their manager’s faith by helping Villa to a 1-0 victory over Slavia Prague at the Eden stadium last night.
The win puts Villa on six points at the top of group F following their 2-1 success against Ajax and they face Hamburg and MSK Zilina to confirm their involvement in the final stages.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan, made a string of vital saves on his European debut for Villa and was delighted to cap a fine performance with a clean sheet.
However, the American stopper, whose path to the first team has been blocked by compatriot Brad Friedel, preferred to praise his team-mates for protecting his goal. “We knew coming here it was going to be difficult, especially going in at half time with the lead,” the understudy to fellow American Friedel said.
“We knew the second half was going to be difficult but I thought the boys did a great job in terms of holding our composure and defending as a unit.
“Every opportunity you want to prove yourself to your team, your coaching staff and everybody. It was a well-played game by everybody. I thought our backs did a phenomenal job.”
Five outfield players were also given rare outings in the Villa first team. Moustapha Salifou, Steve Sidwell, Curtis Davies, Craig Gardner and Zat Knight all took their opportunities to impress.
James Milner failed to make the trip to the Czech Republic capital due to injury while captain Martin Laursen was rested along with Gareth Barry, Nigel Reo-Coker and Luke Young.
Sidwell said the victory and Villa’s place at the head of group F proved that O’Neill’s players mean business in this year’s Uefa Cup. The former Chelsea midfielder played an important part in Villa’s 26th-minute winning goal when his strike was fortuitously deflected in off striker John Carew.
“It’s been a frustrating start for me personally,” said Sidwell, whose early days at Villa Park have been disrupted by injury. “But it’s good to get playing and it’s a great result.
“We’ve got a fantastic squad. The manager’s bought shrewdly in the summer and we showed on the pitch what we can do. It’s very important. It shows we’re not here as a token gesture. We want to go all the way. We’ve proved it against Slavia Prague and we proved it against Ajax.”