Milner can be World Cup wild card
Martin O'Neill raised a few eyebrows when he claimed James Milner's defining moment in Aston Villa's Carling Cup semi-final win at Blackburn Rovers was "a great goal by a great player."
Great goal? O'Neill had a point. A classic Villa counter that swept the length of Ewood Park and was led and finished by Milner, with an honourable mention to Stewart Downing.
Great player? No. Let's bracket that alongside O'Neill flair for hyperbole that allowed him to charitably label Ashley Young "world-class" and "a genius" after a match-winning performance at Everton last season.
O'Neill's claim provided a good-natured sideshow in semantics after a deserved Villa win, and he had the last word when he told an inquisitor: "I take your point that playing great doesn't make you a great player, but he's a great player."
Milner is not yet a great player, but he is unquestionably an outstanding one and must get the chance to back O'Neill's boast with England in South Africa this summer.
Milner's introduction as a 16-year-old at Leeds United in 2002 was overshadowed by the parallell emergence of Wayne Rooney at Everton, but the former no longer needs to live in anyone's shadow as he comes to full maturity under O'Neill's tutelage.
He was the outstanding player on show at Ewood Park as Villa established a narrow lead for next week's semi-final second leg at home, an advantage that should be sufficient to seal a Carling Cup final against Manchester City or Manchester United at Wembley.
Milner celebrates his goal at Ewood Park
He showed pace, power and stamina to take the ball great distance before exchanging passes with Downing, then showing the intelligence and composure to arrive on the end of the final pass and score with comfort.
Milner made it look easy, but it is what very good players do. Great ones even. He has only just turned 24 and his career has been something of a slow-burner, but with every week that passes it becomes clear he has to be with England at the World Cup.
Conditions in South Africa will be made for the combination of athleticism and ability possessed by Milner. He is one of the main reasons I continue to believe - and I'm in the minority - that David Beckham would be a needless luxury for Fabio Capello - providing Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott are in good health.
Milner will provide England with options courtesy of his natural versatility. He has always been comfortable on the flanks, but, as O'Neill says, "has settled into a more central midfield role as if he has played there all his life."
In a tournament environment, tactical alternatives can prove priceless. If Milner is not on the plane it would be an uncharacteristic error by England's coach.
It was easy to understand O'Neill's enthusiasm after Milner's performance. If he is not a great player yet, and surely he has to prove this in an international context, then he certainly has it within his compass to become one.
He was part of a Villa side that now look ready to take the next step in the O'Neill tenure, from promising league positions to a major final, after this win.
Villa's manager packed his side with attacking intent at Ewood Park - and it had the desired effect. Emile Heskey was the most subdued member of a strikeforce that contained pace, power and width provided by Milner, Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Downing, who also showed enough to suggest he might keep Capello interested between now and the end of the season.
The visitors were a constant source of menace on the break, although they can be criticised for a failure to cash in on their supremacy, almost allowing Blackburn back in after the break.
As Villa supporters celebrated at the final whistle, the mood among the Ewood Park patrons was in marked contrast. Troubled times these for this splendid club, the one-time Premier League champions who are now living in reduced circumstances.
Sam Allardyce told a hard luck story after the game, based around two second-half efforts from Nikola Kalinic that bounced back off the woodwork. It was easy to see why Allardyce would clutch at these flimsy straws, but over the whole game Blackburn were second best.
Being an ordinary side is bad enough. Being unlucky and ordinary is a recipe for struggle - and that is what Rovers will face for the rest of the season unless they turn logic on its head and win at Villa next week.
An added problem for Allardyce is that he has failed to win the hearts and minds of many Blackburn supporters, who take a dim view of his tactical approach, making for an occasionally mutinous atmosphere.
It does seem Allardyce's style is an acquired taste - and one that some will never actually acquire, as proved by the swathes of empty seats inside Ewood Park for a game of such importance.
Loud jeers broke out as early as the first half, followed by what is becoming a familiar cry of "Big Sam, Big Sam Sort It Out."
In Allardyce's defence, he is having to sort it out on a tight budget and an even tighter schedule. Blackburn were playing their second game this week. Not ideal.
No such problems for Villa as they contemplate their first Wembley appearance since the 2000 FA Cup Final, inspired by the magic of Milner. Not a great player yet but showing all the signs he may become one, no doubt leaving O'Neill to tell us he was right all along.