x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Villa aim to march into semi-finals

The term "March Madness" may commonly be associated with American college basketball, but in recent years it can be applied to the fortunes of Aston Villa.

The term "March Madness" may commonly be associated with American college basketball, but in recent years it can be applied to the fortunes of Aston Villa. Since taking charge of the club in 2006, Martin O'Neill has amazingly yet to savour a victory in the month. But he needs that dismal 12-match run to end today when Villa visit Reading in the quarter- finals of the FA Cup.

Like a curse, it haunts both him and his side, who last won on March 4, 2006, when they beat Portsmouth. With a string of Premier League games to come as well, their season will finish in failure if they cannot break the barren spell - just like it did a year ago. Three defeats in four league games inevitably saw Villa miss out on a Champions League place. James Milner, the Villa midfielder, admitted: "I don't know whether it's psychological, physical or what. But it's down to us to put that right."

O'Neill said that Villa had been refused permission to switch some backlogged games to April and added: "I've been reminded that we haven't won a game in March since I've been here. We'll now have an opportunity every two and a half days to change that." The pain of losing last weekend's Carling Cup final could act as another spur for them to reach Wembley. But having squeezed past Crystal Palace in the last round, O'Neill said the trip to the Madejski Stadium could be even more difficult.

Reading have beaten Liverpool, Burnley and West Brom to reach this stage for the first time since 1927. Brian McDermott, their manager, even has the luxury of putting Shane Long, the Republic of Ireland striker, on the bench after his return from suspension. He said: "People say it's no lose [for us], but you can feel low if you don't perform. We want to make sure we perform." sports@thenational.ae