Aston Villa have to produce one of the greatest fightbacks in their history if they are to reach the Carling Cup final tonight. As if their task were not arduous enough, they must attempt to overturn Bolton Wanderers' 5-2 advantage from the first leg without Juan Pablo Angel, their only regular marksman.
The Colombian, who has 16 goals this season, will miss the second leg of the semi-final because of a leg injury sustained in the first meeting last week. His place alongside Darius Vassell will go to either Marcus Allback or Peter Crouch, who have a solitary goal between them this season.
David O'Leary, who described Villa's defending at the Reebok Stadium as "disgraceful, a complete horror show", adopted an almost pleading tone yesterday when asked what he would say to lift the confidence of Angel's deputy. "Score goals, please!" the Villa manager replied.
"The players were very low for a few days after the first game, but I sensed [on Sunday] they were coming up again. They knew how poorly they played and they're a smashing, honest bunch who want to atone. But talk is cheap. It's up to them to go out and rectify the situation."
Bolton will also be missing a talismanic player in Jay-Jay Okocha, who is with Nigeria's squad at the African Nations Cup, as well as the suspended Kevin Nolan. The manager, Sam Allardyce, who warned yesterday that Okocha "may be too expensive" when he tries to re-sign him in the summer, advised his players against thinking they already have one foot in the Millennium Stadium. "I have to get enough fear into them to make sure they run their socks off and get the result we need," Allardyce said.
O'Leary did not have to trawl too deeply into his memory bank for an inspirational example of a victory against the odds. In 1989, he was in the Arsenal team that went into the final match at Anfield needing to win 2-0 to take the championship from Liverpool - a feat which they achieved with seconds to spare.
"People said we had to get a goal in the first five minutes. Why?," he said. "Then the experts said 'They have to score by half-time' and 'They need one early in the second half'. George Graham just told us to keep plugging away and the chances would come.
"We've got 90 minutes. We'll try to play attacking football and take the game to Bolton, as we usually do. But first we've got to defend well and keep a clean sheet. It certainly won't be ridiculous, gung-ho stuff."
Villa fans need go back only 10 years to the same stage of the competition for evidence that the mission is far from impossible. They trailed Tranmere 3-0 in the first leg before Dalian Atkinson gave them slender hope. At Villa Park, Tranmere were two minutes away from Wembley when Atkinson took the tie to extra-time. Villa prevailed on penalties and went on to beat Manchester United in the final.Reuse content