Martin O'Neill was insistent yesterday that he paid the Carling Cup due respect, despite Aston Villa's "desperately disappointing" – and somewhat embarrassing – exit to Queen's Park Rangers with an understrength side. The Championship club will go into the fourth round in Villa's place after the defender Damion Stewart crashed home a late header to score the only goal of the match at Villa Park on Wednesday night.
O'Neill made six changes from the side who defeated West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League last time out, but senior players like Ashley Young, John Carew, Stilian Petrov and Gareth Barry – named as captain for the first time since he lost the job over his ill-fated dalliance with Liverpool – were all on duty. And others, including the £7.8m summer recruit Carlos Cuellar, Zat Knight and Isaiah Osbourne, were hoping to prove their first-team credentials.
However, only Young, in another eye-catching display, if not England-catching – the winger has been ignored by Fabio Capello of late – on the left wing, played close to his best. Cuellar, Osbourne and Marlon Harewood – who missed at least two good chances – were poor. That said, O'Neill refused to round on his players. "I'd be the first to criticise if we had got badly beat, but I felt we did enough to win the game," he said. "Yes, we got beaten, but not because we fielded a weakened side. We treated this competition with the respect it deserves.
"We've suffered a setback but could I say it was because of a lack of effort? Categorically no. But it is desperately disappointing in a competition we had hoped to progress in, if not attempt to win."
In Cuellar's first home start he showed a nervy first touch and failed to challenge Stewart for the goal, but O'Neill insisted he was not disappointed with the Spaniard. "For the goal, he slipped as the ball came into the penalty area and gave their player a free header, but overall, absolutely not. Carlos had a wonderful time with Rangers, played in a Uefa Cup final and was a mainstay of the side that got there."
O'Neill had one of the smallest senior squads in the top flight last season and had hoped his work in the transfer market had left his squad better able to cope with the demands of competing on four fronts.
"We have tried to gather a squad here that is able to cope with that and cope with the fact that we've had four games in eight days," O'Neill said. "Here it wasn't tiredness that set us back, it was the fact that we couldn't score and they took the chance presented to them."Reuse content