James Milner put Aston Villa back at the heart of the battle for Champions League soccer next season with the decisive strike in a 2-1 win over Wigan on Tuesday.
The England World Cup hopeful struck the winner just after the hour mark after Gary Caldwell had canceled out the James McCarthy own goal which had gifted Villa the lead.
The victory left Villa in seventh place in the Premier League table but they are just three points off fourth-placed Tottenham with a game in hand over their rivals.
Villa had top scorer Gabriel Agbonlahor back in action following his recovery from a virus, with Emile Heskey making way.
Wigan, just four points above the relegation zone, were hoping to boost their survival hopes by winning at home for only the second time since November.
Manager Roberto Martinez kept faith with Caldwell after a horror show in the 4-0 loss at Bolton on the weekend and Wigan were first to show, Hugo Rodallega breaking into the box but firing wide before Maynor Figueroa shot centimeters over.
Villa’s first hint of menace came when Ashley Young turned in an Agbonlahor cross from an offside position.
Figueroa then tested Brad Friedel from distance and Norwegian striker John Carew, who sent a shot skidding narrowly wide, and Stewart Downing, whose free-kick was touched over by Chris Kirkland, both went close before Villa took the lead in the 25th minute.
Carew headed down a Downing cross and McCarthy, under no apparent pressure, sliced an attempted clearance into his own net.
Wigan, though, were level inside two minutes with Caldwell rising to glance Charles N’Zogbia’s free-kick past Friedel.
Kirkland produced a brilliant stop to prevent Carew from restoring Villa’s lead before the interval but the home side were far from out of it and Marcelo Moreno went close just after the restart, his curling shot sliding narrowly wide with Friedel beaten.
Villa began to assert themselves however and, after Caldwell had cleared a Carew flick off the line, they reclaimed the lead just after the hour mark.
Kirkland failed to clear a cross convincingly and, when the ball fell to Milner on the edge of the area, the midfielder unleashed a shot that found its way through a crowd of bodies and into the net.
There was to be no way back for Wigan.
Villa boss Martin O’Neill has backed Milner to fill the vacancy in England’s World Cup squad that has opened up as a result of David Beckham’s Achilles injury.
The 24-year-old’s performance received a rave review from his manager.
“It was an extraordinary performance by a really good player,” O’Neill said. “Since he has stepped into central midfield his game his improved tenfold and he continues to go from strength to strength.”
Milner started his career as a right-sided midfield player but his chances of getting into the England squad could rest on his versatility given that he has demonstrated the ability to fill in at left-back as well as becoming an increasingly accomplished central midfielder.
“When you play wide you depend on other people giving you the ball to get into the game but when you have got that determination and energy, you might as well use it in the center of the field,” O’Neill said.
“It is something we have been crying out for, a midfielder scoring double figures, and he has been sensational.” the Northern Irishman said.
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