Who needs the optimism of the Cup when you’re in strife? As Houllier’s Aston Villa team ignominiously abandon the Cup at Manchester City

It’s been a difficult period of transition for Villa fans this season, with the club having to come to terms with Martin O’Neill’s departure days before the seasons kick-off and the difficult financial mess he left in his wake.

Gerard Houllier has (slowly) modelled the team in his own fashion and this calendar years fans have gradually begun to see an improvement, having only lost once since New Year’s Day.

The prospect then of facing Reading in the quarter-finals of the Cup was a tantalising one for a team and its supporters that have experienced and unaccustomed downturn in fortunes of late; however Houllier clearly had other ideas.

This was apparently not a game in which the team and the supporters could haul themselves out of their early season slump by using the Cup as a tool to raise optimism around the club, despite everything and everybody indicating this would be the case, except of course Mr Houllier.

In a nod to his predecessor, Houllier decide to rest a large percentage of his team in favour of a second string which consisted of players playing wildly out of position.

Upon first reading of the team sheet it was evident that this would at the very least be a difficult tie against the wealthy reserves of City, but unfortunately it wasn’t even that. It was almost an exhibition game as the hosts comfortably strolled to victory.

With the inexperienced midfielder Chris Herd at right-back (and later in the centre of defence) and attacking midfield man Fabian Delph on the left side of defence it was always going to be a test of how the hodgepodge of a team could adapt to their unaccustomed positions.

The overall performance of the team was unfortunately far below par in a midfield that lacked creativity and an attacking line that had two strikers making do on the wing and only managed two shots on target all game. That can be understood, but what is more difficult to comprehend is why this team was even selected.

Having waded through treacle for most of the season the distraction of the Cup was welcome and an opportunity for a silver lining.

Excluding the necessary omissions of Nathan Baker through injury and Darren Bent as he was cup-tied, Houllier decided to rest all but three of the team that started against Blackburn, although why is a mystery, as from now until the end of the season Villa only have weekend fixtures ahead of them with no sapping midweek games.

What’s more is that before last Saturday’s game, Villa had the luxury of a two week break, so the squad should hardly be in the need for any further rest and relaxation.

If Houllier was concerned with the fixture problem that a knock-out cup competition can bring then he perhaps could have confronted this at an earlier stage of the competition when the fixture list was considerably more congested, instead of waiting until the fifth round to casually knock the idea of progression on the head.

The exclusion of Stephen Warnock and Habib Beye, who played for the reserves against Wolves earlier in the week, could be explained under the banner of resting first-team players and would help explain the inclusion of a couple of unfortunately lost midfielders in the back four, but this goes no way to masking the frustration of fans forced to watch such a limp and lifeless exit from the competition.

Houllier’s reign is far from under question after this result, but his team selection against City will have immensely irritated fans who were looking for a distraction from the drudgery of the league and a likely Wembley appearance in the semi-finals.

Never ones to let an ignominious away defeat get them down though, having unfortunately witnessed a few too many this season, Villa fans roared gloriously throughout the game and entertained themselves by stealing the ball when it was twice punted into the stands in the closing moments of the game and cheering a couple of supporters heading the ball between themselves. At least one element of the team performed.

Tags: Aston Villa, Manchester City, Premier League

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