Villa win at Bristol Rovers
Aston Villa are in the draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup after they beat Bristol Rovers 3-1 at the Memorial Stadium.
Marc Albrighton's well-taken finish gave a strong Villa team the lead after 35 minutes, and classy second-half finishes from Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ciaran Clark added gloss to the victory against a spirited but limited team 74 rungs below them on the league ladder.
Rovers were given something to cheer about in stoppage time when Scott McGleish capitalised on a mistake from Richard Dunne to score a consolation, but then rained on his own parade somewhat by failing to convert a penalty just moments later.
In spite of that it was the Pirates, under the caretaker management of Shaun North following Paul Buckle's sacking earlier in the week, who started by far the brighter.
Motivated by a full ground and the pre-match tributes to the club's recently-deceased former chairman Denis Dunford, the League Two strugglers had most of the early possession. Although they managed to ask plenty of questions of the Villa defence, Chris Zebroski and Eliot Richards's early shots from range were as close as they came to clear chances.
Their prospects took a serious hit when Ghanaian attacker Mustapha Carayol had to be substituted after 28 minutes with a groin strain.
By that time, Villa had begun to play their way into the match. Emile Heskey toe-poked one effort over and had a glancing header tipped over the bar by Michael Poke as he went in search of his first FA Cup goal in seven years.
It was Albrighton who broke the deadlock with 10 minutes of the first half remaining after he latched on to a deft through ball from Stiliyan Petrov. The England U21 winger also had one shot go out for a throw-in and another harmlessly dabbed wide on the volley, but his finish was unerring this time as he drilled a low strike into the far corner for his third of the season.
Stephen Warnock should have doubled Villa's lad soon afterwards when Stephen Ireland cleverly dummied Alan Hutton's cross-field pass, but the left-back rushed his effort and swiped it wide of the near post.
At half-time McLeish swapped Agbonalhor for Heskey in a bid to add more impetus to his side's play and help bring Darren Bent into the match, but the England striker remained a peripheral figure.
Agbonalhor took matters into his own hands on 64 minutes when he rolled past defender Cian Bolger and side-footed a clinical low finish from the edge of the box out of Poke's reach. It was the striker's sixth goal of the season and his first in two months.
With 15 minutes remaining Rovers defender Aaron Downes had the ball in the back of the net from a corner, but not before referee Howard Webb had correctly blown up for a handball by the Australian.
Less than a minute later Clark settled the tie with a wonderful solo effort. The youngster scored his first goal since an FA Cup win over Blackburn last January after he roamed forward with the ball and made space for himself with a stepover on the edge of the box and stroked the ball right into the far bottom corner.
The game was all but over but the home fans were given something to cheer in stoppage time when Dunne's misguided backpass fell to the feet of McGleish, who had replaced Carayol earlier. The 38-year-old controlled the ball well and lifted it over the onrushing Brad Guzan to put his team on the scoreboard.
The veteran of nine different clubs had the chance to add a second goal to the six he scored in the competition proper last season less than two minutes later when Warnock was harshly judged to have handled in the area, but his spot-kick was the ideal height for Guzan to make the save.
The final few moments were certainly the most dramatic of the game thanks to Bristol Rovers, but Aston Villa showed enough quality throughout the rest of the match to leave the West Country with a place in the fourth round draw.