Milner stands out as Villa's England hopefuls hit form

Portsmouth 2 Aston Villa 4
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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill was overlooked for the job of England manager back in 2006, yet he is still doing his bit to help the national side ahead of next summer's World Cup in South Africa.

Aston Villa progressed to the semi-finals of the Carling Cup with a convincing victory over Portsmouth in a gloriously entertaining cup tie last night and, to make it an intriguing evening for England manager Fabio Capello, four of Villa's England hopefuls – James Milner, Emile Heskey, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young – all scored.

Milner was the pick of the bunch, proving his versatility in an unfamiliar role in the centre of midfield. Capello is already aware of Milner's ability to play a range of positions, at home on either the left or the right flank.

The England manager even used him at left-back for 15 minutes of England's World Cup qualifier against Belarus. If Capello wants players who can perform in a variety of roles, then Milner is making a compelling case for inclusion in the 23-man squad.

Milner set Villa on their way to the semi-finals with a delightful pass which set up Emile Heskey to lift the ball over Portsmouth goalkeeper Asmir Begovic for Villa's opening goal. That cancelled out an own goal from Stilian Petrov from a Danny Webber corner two minutes earlier.

Milner again provided the inspiration as Villa moved through the gears and took the lead after 26 minutes. Ashley Young supplied the ball from the left flank and, with a deft first touch, Milner took the ball infield on to his right foot and struck a ferocious shot from 20 yards into the far corner of Begovic's goal.

O'Neill said of Milner: "He played terrifically well. He scored the goal but it was a great performance. It didn't cause me undue concern because I know he can play in there." Milner faded slightly after the interval, but Ashley Young stepped in with a vibrant display down the right to give Villa a serious chance of winning their first trophy since they last won this competition in 1996.

Downing, making his first start for Villa since moving from Middlesbrough for £10m in the summer, shrugged off the frustration of having been sidelined for six months with a broken bone in his foot by scoring Villa's third with a stooping far-post header from Ashley Young's cross.

The Portsmouth manager, Avram Grant, picked several reserves, and while his side lacked quality, they never gave up the fight, and managed to give Villa a scare with a late goal when substitute Kanu scored from close range after Hermann Hreidarsson chested the ball into his path. But no sooner had Portsmouth threatened to make a comeback than it was snuffed out by Ashley Young's no-nonsense finish from a cross by another England squad member Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Grant's primary concern, with Portsmouth rooted to the foot of the Premier League, will be that his side have conceded eight times in his first two games in charge. The Pompey manager said: "If you concede four in the last two games, of course you have problems. But it's about concentration, not just the defence. That's something I have to look at."

For O'Neill now there is the prospect of a two-legged semi-final next month. He said reaching a semi-final was overdue. "Aston Villa are a club that maybe, over the last 25 years since the heady days of European football, might not have been contesting as many semi-finals or finals that the club's size would warrant," O'Neill said. "So it's nice to be doing that now in that sense. It would be nice to win a trophy."

Portsmouth (4-4-2): Begovic; Vanden Borre, Kaboul, Ben Haim, Hreidarsson; Yebda, Brown, Hughes (Wilson, 84), Belhadj; Utaka (Piquionne, 76), Webber (Kanu, 65). Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Mullins , Dindane, Basinas.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; L Young, Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock; Downing, Milner, Petrov, A Young; Heskey (Delfouneso, 89), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Delph, Reo-Coker, Beye, Gardner, Clark.

Referee: L Mason (Bolton).