Guzan heroics see Villa through

Sunderland 0 Aston Villa 0 (Aet; Aston Villa win 3-1 on penalties)
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The Independent Football

Superstitious Steve Bruce can't bring himself to watch penalties, and after watching the ineptitude with which his side performed from 12 yards, it's hardly surprising.

From five attempts, four of those in the shoot-out, only Steed Malbranque was able to beat Brad Guzan, the understudy to Brad Friedel who grasped, literally, a rare opportunity to shine. "I can pay him no higher tribute than that I was almost expecting him to save each one," Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager enthused.

Guzan's save from Kenwyne Jones' penalty with five minutes left took the tie into extra-time, at the end of which the US international stood firm to deny Kieran Richardson who burst through on goal with just the Chicagoan to beat.

It was in the ensuing shoot-out, however, when the man from Evergreen Park, Illinois, truly took centre stage. Andy Reid, Lorik Cana and, finally, Jordan Henderson were all denied, the latter not deserving of such a fate after a stand-out display from a teenage midfielder for whom a glittering future lies ahead. "Jordan's broken-hearted in there," revealed Bruce, who is also set to reconsider his superstitious stance on penalties. "The kid didn't deserve that because he was fantastic and his performance was one of the positives."

Justice was done when Guzan dived to his left to keep out Jones' tame effort after Carlos Cuellar was harshly judged to have handled Reid's cross to leave Bruce fearing the worst. "When it went to penalties we had no chance of winning, not with the chances we'd missed," he added.

It was left to Ashley Young to deliver the killer blow at the culmination of a shoot-out Guzan is unlikely to forget in a hurry. "Their keeper's had one of those nights he'll remember for the rest of his career," Bruce added.

How Jones must have wished Richardson had put up a more stringent argument as the pair clashed in the prelude to the 85th-minute turning point in a heated discussion as to who should fill the void left by the absence through injury of the designated taker, Darren Bent.

Jones suffered the added ignominy of not being entrusted with a shoot-out spot kick. "To be fair to Kenwyne he's taken them before," added Bruce. "But when that kind of chance comes along, you've got to take it."

Sunderland should have been out of sight long before Jones' gaffe, but found Guzan unbeatable not just from 12 yards. "The lads are pretty euphoric, no more so than Mr Guzan," added O'Neill. "It was a fantastic performance and I think he's going to be a great goalkeeper in the making because he's got everything. It would have taken something special to beat him tonight."

The impressive Henderson came close on several occasions to that something special, most notably with a delicious second-half chip from 20-yards which had even Guzan floundering.

However, too many of the England youth international's team-mates went missing, and it took a fine late save from Dean Gordon to prevent Gabriel Agbonlahor finally breaking the deadlock after the fleet-footed forward left Nyron Nosworthy for dead.

Henderson looked to have justifiable claims for a penalty when he was brought down by Richard Dunne at the end of the first-half, but referee Phil Dowd thought otherwise. Given what was to come, it was a decision that probably saved Sunderland from further heartache.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Da Silva, Nosworthy, Turner, McCartney (Ferdinand, 77); Murphy (Reid, 72), Cana, Henderson, Richardson; Campbell (Malbranque 94), Jones. Substitutes: Fulop, Healy, Meyler, Reed.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; Milner, Reo-Coker (Delph, 91), Petrov (Sidwell, 116), A Young; Heskey, (Carew, 76), Agbonlahor. Substitutes: Friedel, L Young, Shorey, Beye.

Referee: P Dowd (Stoke-on-Trent).