Spring is in the air at Villa Park. After a winter of discontent, where Gérrard Houllier's side have toiled unconvincingly around the Premier League's nether regions, the optimism that followed Saturday's 4-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers was easy to detect.
Were it not for Keith Andrews' appalling error in giving away the 49th-minute penalty converted by Ashley Young, this might have gone ended up being yet another unsatisfactory afternoon for the home side. But once freed from pressure of breaking down the limited if well-organised visitors, Villa put on a show that offered an enticing hint of just what they might be capable of with the burden of relegation lifted from their shoulders.
Marc Albrighton, stationed on the left flank in that second half, was a continuous menace. Ashley Young, in the hole, was direct and purposeful in everything he did, a point exemplified by both his dispossessing of Andrews to earn the penalty and the prolificacy of his finish for Villa's fourth. Darren Bent made intelligent runs to stretch the Blackburn defence and leave gaps for others. The most impressive of Villa's English performers in front of the watching Fabio Capello, however, was Stewart Downing.
"Stewart is outstanding, he has improved a lot," said Houllier of a performance from the winger that was considered and flamboyant at precisely the right times. "He's more confident, he can pass, he can score. His goal was fantastic. He can make runs sometimes to cover, sometimes to fill in, and his technique is good, his awareness is good. Stewart can be on either side, right or left. He's one of the rare players who can use his both feet."
Houllier believes Downing should be in England's squad for the European Championship qualifier against Wales in Cardiff at the end of March and given that England's perennial left-sided midfield issue refuses to be solved Capello might agree. It won't have escaped his attention that Downing was immeasurably more dangerous against Blackburn cutting in from the right-flank in the second half than he was stationed on the left in the first. But still, talented left-footed English players remain a rare species.
As for Blackburn, they can only ponder what might have been had Jermaine Jones beaten Brad Friedel in the second half with the score at 0-0. This was their fourth league defeat in six games, a result that puts them in the middle of a battle against relegation.
Booked: Blackburn J Jones, Grella, Nelsen
Sent off: Blackburn Nelsen (90)
Man of the match Downing
Referee M Atkinson (Yorkshire)