Milner's mastery points way to Champions League for O'Neill

Blackburn Rovers 0 Aston Villa 2
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The Independent Football

Sam Allardyce is no Bruce Forsyth but he does know what points mean. By his estimation, and history's too, Aston Villa are six wins away from ensuring they are in the Champions League next season. Five could be enough.

Villa, who moved to third in the Premier League with this win, are on 51 points and Big Sam, who is possibly the top flight's most statistically aware manager, believes that puts them within 17 of a place in the top four. Arsenal and Arsène Wenger might beg to differ, but they will have to confound the mathematics.

"Normally it takes between 66 and 68 points to claim fourth spot," the Blackburn Rovers manager said. "Everton slipped in with 61 points one season but generally it's 65 and above. If Villa get there, Arsenal or another of the top four teams will find it difficult to match it."

Allardyce was speaking after Martin O'Neill's team had systematically snuffed out his side's chance of extending his unbeaten record since he arrived at Ewood Park in December. He was smarting, but he was impressed, too, and believes that not only will Arsenal struggle to finish above Villa this season but Chelsea too.

"We weren't at our best because Villa were so good," he said. "They put pressure on us all over the pitch because they are very, very good out of possession.

"Their team work extremely hard to make life difficult for you and when they get the ball they constantly probe with the pace they have got."

Honeyed words for O'Neill, whose principal problem appears to be roping in runaway expectation. The visiting supporters sang about winning the Premier League, something the manager insists in premature, and clearly Fabio Capello is a fan as he has included six of the Villa team in his England squad for the friendly against Spain on Wednesday.

"I hope no one is picked," was O'Neill's wry observation but he did go on to sing the praises of James Milner, who has been called into the England squad for the first time.

"I've had a look at the DVDs and I thought he was brilliant for us in the year he was on loan and his game has expanded since then," he said. "What used to be levelled at him was his final ball wasn't good enough, but apart from one game this season, against Portsmouth, he has been outstanding."

It was Milner who set Villa on the path to this win with a ferocious shot from a narrow angle and he was the most creative influence on the pitch by a wide margin. Yet, he brings more, as O'Neill testified.

"He covers so much ground for us," he said, "defensively he is brilliant. He and Ashley Young get back at the first sign of danger, they are covering ground, they are picking it up, they are going 40 or 50 yards with the ball. It's incredible energy. I know, I used to play in that position and I really don't know how they do it."

Many are wondering much the same about Villa.

Goals: Milner (27) 0-1; Agbonlahor (90) 0-2.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Robinson; Ooijer, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock; Pedersen, Grella, Andrews (Tugay, h-t), Dunn (Diouf, h-t); McCarthy, Roberts (Santa Cruz, 74). Substitutes not used: Bunn, Khizanishvili, Villanueva, Givet.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar (Gardner, h-t), Davies, Knight, L Young; Milner, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Heskey (Carew, 70), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan, Sidwell, Delfouneso, Salifou, Shorey.

Booked: Blackburn McCarthy, Tugay; Aston Villa Barry.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Man of the match: Milner.

Attendance: 24,267.