Allardyce draws on past cup heroics to end slump

O'Neill backs Blackburn adversary to turn Rovers round as pressure mounts
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The Independent Football

The Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill is backing Sam Allardyce to haul Blackburn Rovers out of the mire despite hoping to add to his problems this evening.

Suggestions are that the Rovers manager is under pressure following a run of nine Premier League matches without a victory. That has left Blackburn facing a scrap for survival as they hover just three points above the relegation zone, and with all the teams below them having at least one game in hand.

Tonight's first leg of their Carling Cup semi-final against Villa at Ewood Park may be seen as a welcome distraction for Allardyce and his players. A Villa victory, however, may push Allardyce closer to the brink if rumours of dressing-room unrest and unhappiness at boardroom level are to be believed.

But O'Neill is convinced his opposite number at Blackburn can turn the tide, even if Villa go on to reach the final at Wembley. "I would absolutely back Blackburn Rovers," O'Neill said. "I didn't realise they had not won for so many games, but I wouldn't think, with Sam in charge, they will have any problems. I don't know anything about him being under pressure, but we're all only a couple of games away from a crisis."

Rovers' last victory was the penalty shoot-out win over Chelsea in the quarter final on 2 December, but O'Neill feels the lean run will have no bearing on tonight's outcome. "Their efforts against Chelsea in the previous round were fantastic and I'm sure they'll draw on that sort of inspiration to get them up for this game," he said.

"I'm sure they'll be well up for it anyway. It's a semi-final, two games away from Wembley, and that in itself is a massive incentive. Therefore I don't think previous recent form will have any bearing whatsoever on the game."

After suffering the postponement of their last two games, the first leg that was initially due to be played last Tuesday and Saturday's league game at Wigan Athletic, O'Neill's players are itching to be in action. Having played on Monday, albeit enduring a 4-1 defeat at Manchester City, Blackburn at least have that competitive edge, whereas Villa are potentially well rested.

O'Neill said: "Overall, it's been a bit frustrating for us. The frustration stems from the fact we've travelled overnight to our last two games, and both have been called off the next day.

"Because of our postponements, and with Blackburn having played a game, they will have a bit of an advantage because they've been up and running."

O'Neill has no fresh injury concerns and is likely to name a full-strength side, albeit with the goalkeeper Brad Guzan continuing his cup duties ahead of the regular No 1, Brad Friedel.

Allardyce is calling on one of his players to deliver the sort of stellar performances that Jay-Jay Okocha conjured in Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers days at this stage of the competition in 2004. The Nigerian scored twice, both from free-kicks, in a 5-2 victory against Villa before departing for the Africa Cup of Nations. That three-goal lead was good enough to see Bolton through to the final at the Millennium Stadium, where they lost to Middlesbrough.

Allardyce said: "Hopefully someone will be inspired to deliver something like that for us. That is what you need in those particular games to get through. Some of our players have played in a considerable amount of semi-finals, so this will not be new to them. Most of them, though, have suffered the disappointment of defeat not the elation of victory. They have to draw on that experience so they are not deflated at the end of both legs.

"I can still recall Jay-Jay's two free-kicks that night, particularly the second one. It clinched the victory for us in the first leg and I have never seen a free-kick scored like that ever since. I have to take credit as we managed to delay his call up to the Africa Cup of Nations, so he could play the first leg. We got to the final and although it was disappointing not to win the trophy, it was a great adventure and we want to experience that again."

Allardyce could be without a number of key players tonight. Vince Grella (thigh) and Jason Roberts (knee) are ruled out through injury while Benni McCarthy (back) and Gaël Givet (head) remain doubtful. El Hadji Diouf is also absent through suspension.