Doncaster's Neil Sullivan keeps Aston Villa at bay

24 January 2009 06:44
Considering their track record in this town, Villa would probably have been grateful to be spared another ignominious defeat at the hands of Doncaster, but they left rueing spurned opportunities and an extra fixture on their congested schedule.

It took Villa half the match to assert a degree of Premier league authority over a team challenging to stay in the Championship and then found Neil Sullivan as defiant and composed as he was in his pomp with Leeds.

Sullivan's judgment and agility repelled the best Martin O'Neill's side could muster and when the evergreen goalkeeper was incapable of intervening, Villa still couldn't claim their passage to the fifth round.

Steve Sidwell headed wide of an inviting goal and Gabriel Agbonlahor, at last released and in the clear, inexplicably struck the crossbar.

Villa might have paid the ultimate price for their profligacy, Martin Woods striking the frame of Brad Friedel's goal for the second time and cursing his fate.

Conceding at that late stage would have delivered a salutary lesson to Villa and evoked painful experiences past. Humiliated 3-0 in the Carling Cup at Doncaster's abandoned home, Belle Vue, the last time they met, Villa toiled for momentum through the first half.

O'Neill fielded his strongest available team, but the absence of the suspended Ashley Young deprived them of the added penetration that may have suppressed Doncaster's studied game.

Doncaster were more than a match for a laboured Villa and Woods' first moment of misfortune reflected the fine balance of the contest.

The shift of power came as James Milner, isolated and ineffectual out on the left for almost an hour, unleashed his threat. Suddenly he ran and probed with purpose. Twice he was repelled by Sullivan. He delivered the centre from which Sidwell should have scored.

Somehow Doncaster survived the barrage and when Agbonlahor fluffed his line, Sean O'Driscoll's side sensed they might even mug Villa for the winner. O'Neill said: 'We're still in the Cup, that's the main thing. We had our chances and probably should have won it during that period. But full marks to them and all the fans. It was a typical Cup tie.'

They say football teams mirror their manager but Doncaster play with a smile on their face. A dour O'Driscoll said: 'We could have done without a replay. Martin would probably say the same.

'It's another game for us and we've got only a smallish squad. We've got an important league game against Sheffield United this week.'

Agbonlahor squandered an early opportunity to put Doncaster in their place and Gareth Roberts wasted an even clearer chance when Villa's defence went Awol.

As if to atone for his early miss, Agbonlahor selflessly turned provider for Nigel Reo-Coker, who stabbed the ball just over. Reo-Coker returned

the compliment on the half-hour. Agbonlahor's pace carried him into the path of the cross and Sullivan demonstrated his ageless reflexes with an excellent save.

Friedel was less assured with a hurried clearance and hugely relieved Woods' instant reply nearly clipped the top of his crossbar. Sullivan denied Villa again, lunging to gather Milner's drilled effort from a free-kick routine. The keeper reacted smartly to save again from Milner and produced his best of all to frustrate Agbonlahor.

Sullivan was helpless when Milner's centre reached Sidwell at the far post and equally thankful the header was misdirected.

Doncaster's closest encounter with elimination came after 71 minutes. Agbonlahor sprinted beyond a Doncaster defence appealing in vain for offside, only to thump his shot against the bar.

Doncaster retaliated and Woods hit a glorious free kick that came back off the angle of bar and post.

Match details

Doncaster Rovers: Sullivan, O'Connor, Mills, Hird, Roberts, Woods, Stock, Wellens, Coppinger (Price 76), Guy (Heffernan 76), Spicer (Lockwood 90)Subs: Taylor, Van Nieuwstadt, Wilson, ByfieldAston Villa: Friedel, Davies, Cuellar, Knight, Reo-Coker (Gardner 70), Sidwell, Petrov, Barry, Shorey, Milner, AgbonlahorSubs: Harewood, Delfouneso, Salifou, Guzan, Osbourne, ClarkReferee: M Halsey (England).

Source: Telegraph