Bent's hunger for goals puts Villa in box seat
Aston Villa's Darren Bent picked up where he left off last season by scoring the only goal against Blackburn Rovers to set up a meeting with Chelsea in Saturday's final after a low-key start to the tournament.
Bent, who scored 20 goals last season and nine in 16 games after a January move to Villa from Sunderland, displayed typical poacher's instincts shortly after half-time, ghosting in at the front post to flick a superb Barry Bannan cross past Paul Robinson and send Villa into Saturday's final.
'All goods are good goals, it's always nice to score even in friendlies, but the main thing is we're into the final,' said Bent, who signed for Villa in a GBP24-million (HK$306m) deal. 'It was a great ball from Barry, he's got that in his locker, and it was great to stick a toe out and get it.'
But fans had precious little else to cheer in an underwhelming first game and it was plain that the vast majority were here to see Chelsea; the atmosphere for their clash against Kitchee was far removed from the muted response to this pair.
With the temperature and humidity levels far beyond anything the English-based players are used to, it was perhaps unsurprising that much of the game was played little above walking pace. But there was no lack of commitment, with players throwing themselves into tackles that stretched the definition of the word 'friendly', giving managers Steve Kean and Alex McLeish cause to wince on the sidelines.
'You do worry about picking up injuries but I believe it's great for the players' mentality to put themselves through that, to throw themselves about and come away unscathed,' said Villa's McLeish, himself no stranger to putting his head where it hurt as a centre-half with Aberdeen and Scotland. 'I think if you pussyfoot about and don't go into challenges the way you should that's when you come a cropper.'
Bannan was the pick of Villa's players and having made his breakthrough last season, he has a big term ahead as he looks to seal regular starts for club and country. McLeish singled him out for special praise.
'I believe we've got some great young players and there's one or two sleepers who could emerge,' he added. 'Ashley Young's boots are big ones to fill [the forward having joined Manchester United], but there's an opportunity there for someone.'
Villa are hoping to complete a deal for Wigan's Charles N'Zogbia in the coming days, though owner Randy Lerner is tightening the purse strings.
Rovers will definitely need reinforcements on this showing if they are not to repeat last season's relegation struggle, and Kean said he was hoping to meet with the club's Indian owners in Hong Kong this week.
Argentine Mauro Formica was their liveliest player and he and Brett Emerton stretched Shay Given in either half, Rovers' only real chances.
The biggest cheer of the night was left for stoppage time, when a mini-brawl briefly threatened to break out for no apparent reason on the halfway line. 'Because they're Barclays Premier League teams there's a little bit of an edge and there were a few meaty tackles and a wee tete-a-tete at the end, handbags at dawn,' said McLeish. 'But I was pleased with the performance, fans might wonder why it wasn't played at a faster pace, but believe me, playing in that heat and humidity is extremely difficult.'
Kean added: 'There'll be a few bumps and bruises on both sides, such is the nature when two teams from the same league play each other - it was lively.'