Pires rolls back years to volley Villa home

Aston Villa 3 Blackburn Rovers 1: Frenchman inspires young team-mates after sending-off to deny Blackburn
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The Independent Football

Aston Villa, who reached the semi-finals last season, played the generation game to maintain their hold over Blackburn in the knockout competitions, despite playing nearlya third of the match with 10 men after the dismissal of 19-year-old Nathan Baker on his home debut.

Robert Pires, a three-time FA Cup winner now in his 38th year, scored his first goal in the English game since 2006, bookended by efforts from Ciaran Clark, 21, and Nathan Delfouneso, 19. At the other end, Brad Friedel, who will become Villa's oldest-ever player at Old Trafford on Tuesday, recovered from NikolaKalinic's equaliser to keep Blackburn at bay after Baker's red card.

When the fourth goal of the game went in with 48 minutes still to play, it looked as if we could be on for a spree along the lines of Villa's 6-4 win over Sam Allardyce's Blackburn in the Carling Cup semi-finals a year ago. But Baker's rush of blood, an ill-timed lunge on Junior Hoilett, forced the home side to close ranks and show, in Gérard Houllier's words, "discipline and tactical adjustment".

The Villa manager, who has pre-sided over three victories in a week, is finally winning over the fans. As is Pires, judging by the ovation he received on being substituted. "Robert is fitter than he was [when he arrived last autumn], and still has the touch and an eye for a pass," said Houllier. "People have to understand he hasn't got the legs he had when he was 30, but he can still run."

Nevertheless, word is that Houllier is close to signing a youngermidfielder on loan from Borussia Mönchengladbach, the 23-year-old USA international Michael Bradley, son of the national team coach, Bob.

Houllier felt the referee, Lee Probert, had been "harsh" on Baker while acknowledging that the official saw it from a different angle. "It looked as if Nathan had his feet off the ground but I don't think he had," Houllier said.

Allardyce's successor, Steve Kean, termed the challenge "high and late" yet magnanimously described Pires as "technically immaculate". The Blackburn manager viewed the outcome as an opportunity missed. "We respected the competition and tried to put out a team we felt could win. We had eight good chances but didn't work Friedel enough, and the goals we let in were poor."

The clubs have contested ties in the Cup in three centuries and have now met in both domestic competitions in each of the past two seasons, Villa progressing each time. Yet perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, for the atmosphere was a distant cry from Darren Bent's match-winning debut against Manchester City a week earlier.

Bent was cup-tied, having appeared for Sunderland in the third round. However, the feelgood factor generated by his £18 million signing carried over into a bright opening by Villa. No sooner had Roque Santa Cruz departed the fray with a groin strain than Clark rose at the far post to head in Barry Bannan's corner.

Blackburn were soon level. Keith Andrews's slide-rule pass was perfectly weighted to pick out Michel Salgado, whose cut-back was bundled in by Kalinic, on for Santa Cruz.

Two goals in seven minutes late in the first half put Villa in control. Bannan and Delfouneso were involved in the build-up to the first, which Pires lashed in on the half-volley from 15 yards as Blackburn's defenders dozed. It took a fine one-handed save by the 39-year-old Friedel to prevent Christopher Samba's header continuing the tit-for-tat character of the contest, and the crossbar came to the goalkeeper's rescue when Martin Olsson's drive twanged it a minute before the break.

By then, Villa had struck again, Baker's cross from the right providing Delfouneso with a close-range header. The provider's day soon took a turn for the worse, but Villa, far from clinging on, almost made it 4-1 when Grant Hanley cleared off the line from Clark, who rounded off a fine display by thwarting Kalinic in similar fashion.

Attendance: 26,067

Referee: Lee Probert

Man of the match: Clark