x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Guzan climbing to clear Villa's 'Human Wall'

Brad Friedel's understudy set to deputise and Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill has become spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing goalkeepers.

Brad Guzan is set for a starting berth at Blackburn.
Brad Guzan is set for a starting berth at Blackburn.

It was eight years ago when an American goalkeeper walked away with the man-of-the-match award as Blackburn Rovers ended a 74-year wait for success in a cup final. Brad Friedel lived up to his nickname of the "Human Wall" when he left Tottenham tormented in the then Worthington Cup showpiece at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Now rebranded as the Carling Cup, the same prize is once more within reach for Rovers as they take on Aston Villa in the semi-finals. Only this time Friedel will be in the opposition dugout and it could be one of his countrymen who upsets his former club. Brad Guzan has become an influential figure for Villa in this season's competition. Four penalty saves in the shoot-out win at Sunderland in round four was a particular highlight. He is well aware that cup-ties are his best chance of appearing in the Villans' starting XI until Friedel decides to call it a day.

Many predict that might be next season when Friedel turns 39, although he continues to defy his age and is one of the Premier League's most consistent performers. Friedel has put that down to competition from Guzan, who covets his idol's place. "Brad has an incredible work ethic and I know he is a very, very good goalkeeper," said the former Liverpool custodian. Few would argue. In his handful of appearances since joining from US side Chivas in the summer of 2008, Guzan, 25, has offered Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, an insight into the future. It looks to be in safe hands.

Barring injury or a surprise change of mind from the Irishman, Guzan will be in goal for tonight's last four, first-leg tie at Ewood Park. "He's as big a reason as anybody that we're there," said O'Neill. "His contribution at Sunderland was absolutely fantastic. I'm delighted with him, and Brad Friedel is playing excellently at this moment as well, so I'm pleased to have both of them." It will be the second time in four days that Guzan faces Blackburn after Saturday's 3-1 win in the third round of the FA Cup. He played his part with a penalty save from David Dunn, the only Rovers survivor from their cup-winning side in 2002.

"You get to a stage where you almost expect him to save the penalties, which is rather unfair on him," O'Neill said of Guzan. "But few should read too much into that result. It's a different competition, different matches and a different set of circumstances." Sam Allardyce, the Rovers manager, concurred. He made his priorities quite clear on Saturday by fielding a weakened side. "There'll be two different teams out there on Tuesday. It is who will be able to handle the pressure the better and who will be able to take their chances when they come around [that will win the game]."

Allardyce will take heart from Blackburn's 2-1 win at Ewood Park back in September when they were down to 10 men, claiming it was their best performance of the season so far. But Villa have sorted out their early-season indifference, and, perhaps ominously, have won six of the last eight meetings with Rovers. With the pacy Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, Villa's attacking threat is obvious. Defensively, with Friedel or Guzan in goal, they have been resolute. The recent 3-0 league loss at Arsenal - their heaviest defeat of the season - was a rare occasion this term they were dismantled.

While Richard Dunne has gained plaudits since his arrival, Carlos Cuellar has proved just as adept in the backline. O'Neill said: "He [Cuellar] harbours an ambition to play for Spain. They'd be impressed if they watched him." akhan@thenational.ae Blackburn v Aston Villa, midnight, Aljazeera +5