Carling Cup final can be start of Villa boom: O’Neill
Arsene Wenger may deride the Carling Cup as a “non-trophy”, but one of the tasks facing Aston Villa and Manchester United is not simply to put on a show that makes the Frenchman's words sound like sour sniping but to ensure the final fulfils the promise of two pulsating semi-final ties.
Villa came from 2-0 down against Blackburn to win the second leg by a tennis score, while United dramatically squeezed past Manchester City.
“If someone had told City and United ‘this isn't a real trophy' they would have got short shrift,” Villa manager Martin O'Neill said.
Sir Alex Ferguson expects “a different type of game” at Wembley but conceded it may not reach “the same level of emotion”.
This is United's third final in five years, a record which underlines the store Ferguson now sets by the competition. Having scrapped a plan to rest key personnel for the return with City, he faces a similar dilemma over whether to start with veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and 27-goal Wayne Rooney.
Since the game may represent United's best chance of silverware, the probability is that both potential match-winners will play. For Villa, who have not lifted a trophy since winning this competition 14 years ago, it is a chance to end the famine.
“The club has had a pretty poor time of it since winning the European Cup in 1982,” O'Neill said.
“They won the League Cup against United in '94 and again in '96, but Chelsea at Wembley in 2000 is the only FA Cup final since '57. It's up to us to try to change that. It's something new for a lot of the players and I hope it's genuinely the start of something for this team.”
Villa are also through to the FA Cup quarter-finals as well as vying for the Champions' League place which remains O'Neill's primary target.
“We can get beaten at Wembley and lose to Reading the following Sunday, but this is the sort of vision we had,” he added.
“We've been here three and a half seasons and I'd like this club to be involved in such matches in February or March in years to come.”
Ferguson and his team have been more frequent visitors to Wembley, this being the Scot's 27th final. Familiarity has scarcely curbed his enthusiasm.
“You can't help but be excited coming to a final, but the only way to enjoy Wembley is by winning, and we've experienced both sides of it over the years,” he said. “It's the ones you lose where you ask yourself, ‘Did I pick the right team?’”
The rival managers have a strong mutual respect and enjoy, as Ferguson put it, "a cup of tea or a glass of wine" after a match. Something rather fizzier awaits tomorrow's victors.