Milner fires Villa's top four hopes

Wigan Athletic 1 Aston Villa 2

The remarkable season being enjoyed by James Milner and his Aston Villa team-mates continued apace at the DW Stadium last night when the versatile midfielder came up with the goal that earned his club three potentially vital points in their quest for fourth place.

Milner was on hand to settle a thoroughly entertaining contest in the 63rd minute, depositing the ball into the corner of the goal from 20 yards after Chris Kirkland had failed to deal with Ashley Young's corner and Mohamed Diame only half-cleared.

An emergency full-back for England and utilised all over midfield by his club manager, Martin O'Neill, Milner has jack-of-all-trades qualities which have made him a near certainty for Fabio Capello's World Cup squad – but last night he illustrated why, as a central midfielder, he is ready to ply his trade on the Champions League stage.

"James was extraordinary tonight. It was an extraordinary performance from a really, really good player," O'Neill said. "Since he stepped into central midfield for us, his game has gone up tenfold, really.

"That is his best position and he continues to go from strength to strength. I think he has added more to his game. I understand that sometimes, when you are playing out wide, you are dependent on other people giving you the ball and getting you into the game.

"But when you have that determination and ability, you might as well use it there in the centre of the field. There is no doubt James would be ready for the Champions League. In fact, he's not only ready for that. If things still go all right and, touch wood, he stays clear of injury, there is no reason he can't be playing for England at the World Cup."

Milner's goal settled a contest which saw each side score within the space of two first-half minutes. The opener, claimed by Villa, was a bizarre affair, James McCarthy making the sort of volleyed contact with John Carew's header across goal that he could probably not duplicate if he tried, the ball somehow spinning off his boot and into his own goal.

The Republic of Ireland international was understandably distraught but his solace was not long in coming, as Wigan produced a 27th-minute equaliser following a foul by Stephen Warnock on McCarthy himself.

Charles N'Zogbia's free-kick was perfectly judged but there was a major malfunction in Villa's marking as the defender Gary Caldwell was allowed to turn an unopposed header past Brad Friedel.

There were chances at each end, Friedel saving well at the foot of his post from Maynor Figueroa and Kirkland doing likewise in tipping over a Stewart Downing shot and then blocking one from Carew as he bore down on goal. But Villa's grip on midfield, courtesy of Milner, and their pace wide and up front, ultimately tipped the balance.

"I really feel for the players," said the Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, who must now lift them for Saturday's home game with Burnley. "They don't deserve the feeling they have got now. I feel a draw would have been a fair result tonight. But every point has an extra significance now and we need to make sure we react in the right way, because Saturday is going to be vital."

Wigan Athletic Kirkland; Boyce (Scotland, 90), Caldwell, Bramble, Figueroa, Thomas, McCarthy (Scharner, 71), Diame, N'Zogbia (Moses, 56), Moreno, Rodallega. Substitutes not used: Stojkovic, Amaya, Gomez, Sinclair.

Aston Villa Friedel; Cuellar, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Downing, Milner, Petrov, A Young, Agbonlahor (Sidwell, 81), Carew (Heskey, 81). Substitutes not used: Guzan, L Young, Delfouneso, Delph, Beye.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Wigan Bramble, Rodallega; Aston Villa Dunne.

Man of the match: Milner.

Attendance: 16,186.