Stakes high for O'Neill

Strong-willed and motivational, yet slightly subtle, Aston Villa's boss will come into his own should his side win a trophy.

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The late Brian Clough was never short of an opinion, whether complimentary or not. One gem was about Martin O'Neill, a player he could never fully control under his charge at Nottingham Forest, but admired and respected as a player and then manager. "Anybody who can do anything in Leicester but make a jumper has got to be a genius," said Clough.

O'Neill was certainly viewed in that light by followers of the Foxes as he took them from English football's second tier to Europe on the back of two successes in the League Cup in 1997 and 2000. Having also won the competition twice as a player with Clough at Forest, it is one that O'Neill obviously enjoys. A fifth victory will be within reach on February 28 after he guided Aston Villa into the final - their first since 1996 - following an enthralling 6-4 semi-final second leg victory, 7-4 on aggregate, over Blackburn Rovers.

Comparisons with Clough have and will always follow O'Neill's career. Strong-willed and motivational, the characteristics are similar even if the Northern Irishman is a touch more subtle, intelligent, with his acerbic comments and less likely to be as volatile. Converting James Milner from a winger to a central midfielder is the sort of move Clough might have made. It has been inspired as O'Neill agreed Milner was again sensational in the role against Rovers. But despite his methods, the passion and past achievements, he will remain in the shadow of one of English football's greatest managers until a major prize comes his way.

When he went to Celtic, he became the first manager since the legendary Jock Stein to win the Scottish treble. That counts for little in England these days. Clough won the league championship and two European Cups with Forest. With expectations high, those are the targets, and the jury is still out on whether O'Neill can achieve that with Villa and be regarded as a great, rather than good, manager.

He has patiently built his squad since he took over in 2006, luring the best talent with the emphasis on future and a belief that success will follow. In Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Fabian Delph, there is a vision of England's future too. But prizes, not potential, are what matter for both O'Neill and his players. The Carling Cup will do for starters and Villa confirmed their Wembley place with a performance that highlighted their growing maturity and mirrored the energy and enthusiasm of their manager.

O'Neill kept cajoling from the sidelines after Nikola Kalinic's double had put Rovers ahead and Villa came back to rack up their highest goal tally since they thrashed Derby 6-0 in April, 2008. Rovers did not deserve that. For half an hour they out-fought and out-thought Villa. Then it turned sour. A nudge in the back by Agbonlahor on Ryan Nelsen went unseen and allowed Stephen Warnock to finish against his former club from close range, before double punishment followed Chris Samba's lunge on Agbonlahor in the box.

The central defender was sent off and Milner confidently dispatched the penalty. Two deflections, one off the unlucky Steven Nzonzi and Agbonlahor, a calm finish by Emile Heskey and Ashley Young's injury-time solo strike, piled on the misery for Rovers. Goals from Martin Olsson, with an acrobatic effort, and Brett Emerton left manager Sam Allardyce unhappy over the refereeing, but proud of their effort.

O'Neill was prouder and Milner reflected the mood under his charge. "We are full of confidence at the moment and we know that we are more than capable of beating anyone on our day," he said.