Since the arrival of Emile Heskey at Aston Villa a year ago, John Carew has had to play second fiddle to the strapping England striker. Martin O'Neill has been reluctant to start them together because they are of similar style and stature. With Gabriel Agbonlahor sick, the Villa manager called upon Carew to partner Heskey for the first time in seven months. He must have been questioning his judgement at half-time when Villa found themselves two goals down. The physically powerful pair failed to punch their weight.
But in the second half, they were more like a pair of heavyweight boxers, with Carew helping himself to a hat-trick to spark a splendid second-half fight back and send Villa into the semi finals. "John, at his hungriest, can perform like that," said O'Neill. "He got the equaliser for us and his game lifted two or three-fold. "Goals give him confidence and the next thing you know he is running the game.
"He can do that and I want him to perform like that more often. I would be delighted if he could score a hat-trick every week, but first he needs to find a level of performance which is up there with the best strikers." Carew has targeted Wembley success after losing to Manchester United in last week's Carling Cup final. "We really want to get to the final again now we know what Wembley is about," he said. "It was not a great experience for us to lose, but we have a great chance to get back there."
The first 45 minutes, though, belonged to Reading and Shane Long. He has come to the fore since last summer's departure of his fellow Irish striker Kevin Doyle, who for so long was the club's talisman and the yardstick by which he has been judged himself. It took an extra-time winner at Anfield, to knock out Liverpool in round three, for Long to show his worth. And, despite missing the last four games through suspension, Brian McDermott, the Royals manager, turned to his big-game player and he repaid the faith in the 27th minute.
Brian Howard floated over a corner, Matt Mills towered above three defenders and the unmarked Long nodded into the net. His second, three minutes before half time, rounded off a stylish move that you would have associated more with the opposition. Gylfi Sigurdsson sent Jimmy Kebe racing away down the right and his cut back was perfect for Long to calmly place the ball into the corner. But they were left aghast by the way things transpired after the break.
Just 70 seconds had elapsed when Stewart Downing slipped through a pass to Carew. His flick into the six-yard area found its way to Ashley Young and he finished with aplomb. "We said we had to start brightly as soon as we got out there and we got an early goal to put them on the back foot," said Young. "It shows the team spirit and the character we have got." Downing was involved in the 51st minute equaliser too. On the right side, he turned to his trusty left foot and the delivery was met by a powerful header from Carew.
He completed the terrific turnaround six minutes later with a deft flick from Stephen Warnock's dangerous left-wing cross. Like many teams this season, Reading simply could not cope with Villa's pace and power. Heskey should have sealed it in the 68th minute when he bulldozed his way through, but Adam Federici, the Reading keeper, made an important block. Villa made two of their own at the other end, though, to deny the brave hosts.
Young made a superb clearing header off the line from Ivar Ingimarsson's effort before Warnock flung himself in front of a shot from Kebe. Carew had the last word in the final minute after Ivar Ingimarsson had tripped him. He blasted in the penalty with supreme confidence. It was a sign of the hunger that O'Neill has demanded. firstname.lastname@example.org