28 February ~ Sixteen years ago I saw Aston Villa play Manchester United in what was then called the Coca-Cola Cup final. Our opponents were favourites on that day too, although the gap between the clubs was less clear cut than it has become in the intervening period. Man Utd were going to be League champions for the second year in a row but prior to that they had gone 26 years without winning the title (a fact that rivals fans gloated over in much the same way that United fans now like to laugh at Man City's 35 years without silverware).
Ron Atkinson's Villa, meanwhile, had been runners-up to Utd the previous season but were heading for a mid-table finish in 1993-94. The media build-up focused on this being the first part of a possible treble for United. But in the event, Eric Cantona failed to shine in his first Wembley final and Villa won comfortably, 3-1. To win any major cup final these days you need to beat at least one of the top four – but that seems like a much less daunting task than it once did.
Martin O'Neill's team are seventh but only a point off fourth and they haven't lost since conceding a last-minute winner to Liverpool just after Christmas. They have had difficulty scoring against the Big Four sides lately but have found the net freely against everyone else. Sixteen years ago Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson scored the three Villa goals between them. In the current team, Gabriel Agbonlahor is the Saunders equivalent as a dependable goalscorer, while Emile Heskey and John Carew are as unpredictable as Atkinson, who mixed breathtaking skill with bewildering ineptitude. Without Rio Ferdinand, United's defence looks very vulnerable, so it would be a surprise if Villa don't manage to score at least once.
Since Wembley reopened, Man Utd have not yet won there in open play in six visits, five of which have ended in penalty shootouts. It's been suggested that Sir Alex is not overly bothered about improving on this statistic and may field a few reserves against Villa so as to save first teamers for a run-in in which they can scarcely afford to lose a single League match. Villa fans won't care in the slightest if our opponents are under-strength, however much that may be dwelt on by the legions of United fans in the press box.
We are, however, troubled by a statistic that has been widely aired lately, which is that in his three seasons in charge at Villa, Martin O'Neill has yet to win a game in March. He has our permission to lose for the rest of the season if we can win on the last day of February. Brad Woodhouse