Blackburn Rovers 2 Aston Villa 0: Blackburn win has Hughes dreaming of European adventures

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The Independent Online

A 10th home Premiership win had Mark Hughes warming enthusiastically to the prospect of leading Blackburn into the Champions' League but prompted the Villa manager, David O'Leary, to warn that clinching fourth place in the table can be something of a hollow triumph.

"We were in a similar position in my first year at Villa," he said. "We went into the last two games still challenging for that fourth spot. But the problem is sustaining it through to the next season. For all the hard work that goes into winning that fourth place, you then have to go into a qualifying round for the Champions' League and getting through that can be easier said than done, as Everton found out when they drew Villarreal.

"You can only celebrate finishing fourth when you get through that qualifying round," he added. "Then your problems start because the teams that reach that top-four level have to spend and spend again to stay in that position."

No one knows better than O'Leary, after his Leeds experience, where that can lead but Hughes is confident that even if Blackburn fail in their bid to play on the higher stage they can mount another attempt next season.

"We know we will have to strengthen the squad in the summer because this is a very strong League and the bar keeps being raised season after season," the Blackburn manager said. "But we think we have a real platform here now and a lot of belief from this season that we hope will filter through into next year."

It was belief, by the players in themselves, that Hughes felt was key on Saturday when, by his own admission, Blackburn fell short of the standard they had reached in defeat at Tottenham a week earlier but still managed to prevent Villa equalling a club record for away games unbeaten.

O'Leary thought his team had played as well as they had in winning 4-0 at Middlesbrough last month but miss after miss left him frustrated, most of all with striker Milan Baros, who twice was one-on-one with Blackburn goalkeeper Brad Friedel but failed to score.

By coming out best then and by turning Olof Mellberg's first-half header over the bar, Friedel made himself man of the match. He enjoyed a much better evening than his Villa counterpart, Thomas Sorensen, who made two mistakes under intense pressure but was punished both times as Andy Todd poked the ball over the line to give Blackburn the lead and then Craig Bellamy guided home his 13th goal of the season.

The FA Cup still offers Villa a route into Europe if the quality of their away form can help them overcome Manchester City in tomorrow's fifth round replay but O'Leary is anxious his players do not take their eye off the ball in the Premiership. "We need to get to that 40-point mark as quickly as possible," he said.

Goals: Todd (49) 1-0; Bellamy (71) 2-0.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill, Todd, Nelsen, Gray (Mokoena, 64); Bentley (Emerton, 69), Reid, Savage, Pedersen; Sinama-Pongolle (Dickov, 79), Bellamy. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Kuqi.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Hughes, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Bouma; Moore, McCann, Davis, Barry; Phillips (Angel, 82), Baros (Hendrie, 82). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Samuel, Whittingham.

Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).

Booked: Aston Villa McCann.

Man of the match: Friedel.

Attendance: 21,932.

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