Aston Villa 3 Reading 1: Carew epitomises O'Neill's giant strides

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The Independent Football

Everyone had been saying Aston Villa looked like a top-six team, but now they can boast a League position to match the moniker. They swaggered into the European berth courtesy of a third successive Premier League victory that was as irresistible as they were irrepressible. In fact, on a sharper day they would have bagged half a dozen.

Reading will be thankful they did not, but painfully mindful of the difference in class. For Martin O'Neill it was an apt time to reflect on his time in charge as Reading were the first side his Villa faced. In 17 months he has transformed them into an outfit of giddying pace and potential.

Gareth Barry, to name but one, is a different player, operating in a different role, on a different stratosphere and here, once again, he was central to most of what was good. Of that there was plenty. "As the game went on I thought we were excellent," crooned O'Neill. "I couldn't be more delighted."

He was especially pleased because of the hasty bit of juggling he was forced to do before kick- off. Olof Mellberg had actually completed the warm up before crying off with a virus. That the influential Swede was not missed was down to the tireless efforts of Barry and the dependable Martin Laursen and the mesmeric movement of Ashley Young. Not to mention the two goals of John Carew.

It was the 6ft 5in striker who got on the end of Young's perfect in-swinging free kick in the 23rd minute. Steve Coppell claimed it was offside, although Reading had been provided with an indication from where the main threat may arrive. Of Villa's 40 goals this season 20 have come directly from a set piece. Put this stat alongside the fact that Reading have the leakiest defence in the Premier League and the home support were justified in anticipating such a breakthrough. But it came just a minute after the visitors should have scored.

Kevin Doyle did everything right in flicking the ball over Curtis Davies, but then everything wrong in sending the shot high into the Holte End with only Scott Carson to beat. Just before the break, Doyle's strike partner Dave Kitson dragged the ball wide when given the freedom of the left half of the Villa area.

They were both let-offs for Villa, although in terms of getting away with it they were nothing compared to the generosity extended to Marcus Hahnemann by Uriah Rennie. The referee had already angered the ground with his constant fussiness but when he pulled out a yellow card for what so obviously had been a two-footed foul by the goalkeeper on Gabriel Agbonlahor the fury turned to disbelief.

It was one of those decisions that usually causes those predominant veins on O'Neill's forehead to twitch uncontrollably, but this time his blood pressure remained in the safety zone largely thanks to the excellent Laursen's unchallenged header in the 55th minute. That should have triggered party time, but for a while Villa disappeared into the kitchen as Reading banged on the door. Carson had to be sharp to turn away Brynjar Gunnarsson's header and Kitson watched another effort repelled.

Villa were soon in control again, and in the 88th minute Carew got his second when applying the finish to a sumptuous upfield move. There was time for James Harper to grab a consolation. But not much of one.