James Milner gave Aston Villa a one-goal lead to take into their return fixture against Blackburn, as Martin O’Neill’s side overcame Rovers in the League Cup semi-final first leg at Ewood Park Thursday.
Milner arrived at the near post to meet Stewart Downing’s low centre after 23 minutes to boost Villa’s chances of going to Wembley.
The goal epitomised Villa’s strengths this season as Milner outstripped the strike pair of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey and ghosted into the box unmarked.
If pacey forward running from midfield was essential to the Villa threat so too was the fact Downing found himself on the right of that flowing counter. His interchangability with Ashley Young poses a constant challenge to fullbacks, as does their quality of ball into the box their centre half colleagues.
Derisive whistles and booing greeted an ineffectual Rovers side at the half-time whistle but that discontent was short-lived as Sam Allardyce’s men rallied after the break.
While Villa’s credentials in attack earned them their first-half plaudits, the woodwork came to their defence twice in the second 45.
Nikola Kalinic first headed Morten Gamst Pedersen’s cross against the right upright, before striking the same post with a rasping right-foot shot after 65 minutes.
Young had shown glimpses of Villa’s goal getting as his cross just evaded Agbonlahor at the start of the second half with the goal gaping.
But Richard Dunne and James Collins saw Villa just hang on to their first-half lead as they repelled Blackburn’s aerial threat, posed by Pedersen and Pascal Chimbonda crossing for lone striker Kalinic.
The defensive duo’s performance mitigated keeper Brad Guzan’s lack of authority collecting crosses, with Dunne called in to repel a Chris Samba header off the line from a Pedersen corner, swung in under the bar to test the League Cup stand-in.