Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov believes his team can ambush Manchester United’s plans to successfully defend a major cup for the first time when the two clubs meet in Sunday’s League Cup final.
The Bulgarian midfielder thinks team-mates like Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young and James Milner are ready to come of age while he himself is desperate to eradicate the painful memory of a 2003 UEFA Cup final defeat to Porto during his time at Celtic.
Now reunited with the then-Celtic boss Martin O’Neill at Villa, Petrov is determined to lead Villa to what would be their first major trophy since they won this competition in 1996.
“It’ll be the biggest day of my club career,” Petrov said.
“It’s a massive game for this club, for the players, for the fans and I hope at the end of it we can all be happy.
“We don’t just want to be passengers there, just to go and enjoy it, without winning it. We will put up a massive fight and we will do our best to win it.
“The only way you enjoy it is by winning. I have been there with Celtic and I know how it is when you lose. When I lost in Seville, people said to me ‘at least you went and enjoyed it’. That just wasn’t the case.
“To be honest, I was still having bad dreams about it nights afterwards.”
The key to Sunday’s final could be the battle between Wayne Rooney and Villa centre-back Richard Dunne, both of whom have adapted to significant changes in their personal circumstances with superb seasons for their respective employers.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure for Real Madrid has resulted in Rooney being recast as an out-and-out striker and he has responded with 27 goals, while Dunne’s superb form has embarrassed Manchester City for having allowed him to leave for Villa.
Villa defender Stephen Warnock believes Rooney has, this season, joined Lionel Messi and Ronaldo on a level that puts them above every other player on the planet.
But he has faith in the ability of Dunne and his fellow centre-back James Collins to keep him under lock and key.
“You could argue all night about who is the best out of him, Messi and Ronaldo but Rooney is one of those players you want to watch,” Warnock said.
“He has got all the ability in the world. I’ve been lucky to train with him with England and realise how good he is.
“Richard and James have got a tough task ahead of them — but Rooney will find it tough to do much against those two as well.
“They are two of the best defenders in the league on form and have been fantastic all season.”
At the other end, the pace and trickery of Agbonlahor and Young could test the resilience of a United defence that will definitely be without Rio Ferdinand and may also be missing Nemanja Vidic.
It was Agbonlahor who scored the winner when the sides met in the league at Old Trafford in December.
United are also without influential veteran Ryan Giggs, who is recovering from a broken arm, and Brazilian midfielder Anderson, who has been ruled out until next season after rupturing the cruciate ligament in his knee.
United boss Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he was torn between naming his strongest available side and keeping faith with the younger group of players who performed well up to the semi-final win over local rivals Manchester City.
“I’m thinking about the younger ones to give them that smell (of success),” Ferguson said.
“There are two or three that come into that category, like Darron Gibson, Jonny Evans and Rafael. They obviously have to be considered. But it would be nice to win the cup having got to Wembley and got through those semi-final ties against City. You want to get to the final and do well.”
Ferguson also has a dilemma over who to play in goal, with Ben Foster, the hero of last season’s penalty shootout win over Tottenham, having impressed in the mid-week win over West Ham after coming in for the rested Edwin van der Sar.