Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Hope for the run-in: the top-four beckons
Jerrad Peters, Aston Villa Correspondent
It is, as Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson says, squeaky-bum time. That mid-winter point in the season where talent and form only go so far. From now through to May, it's as much about guts, will, and bottle as anything else. And while the pressure could not be greater, Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill is exactly where he wants to be.
So too, for that matter, is his football club. After all, Villa have not been involved in such a high-stakes run of matches for quite some time. Not at this end of the table, anyway. It's not even February and their 11-wins have already matched last season's total. They've scored in every Premier League fixture since mid-September.
While a cynic might hold that the bottom will fall out sooner or later, O'Neill would be the first to protest. He's been here many times before. Three Scottish championships in four seasons is proof enough. The 55-year-old Northern Irishman can handle the run-in.
But can his players? Villa have operated on a skeleton squad since August. Gareth Barry will miss his second consecutive match with a pelvic injury and Olof Mellberg is also questionable. The Swedish defender is set to sign pre-contractual papers with Juventus and has not been guaranteed a place ahead of the Blackburn encounter. Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, meanwhile, have been running themselves ragged. The youngsters are relied upon for much of Villa's offensive creativity; and it would not be unreasonable to assume that their influence will curtail, somewhat, in the coming weeks.
That said, early eliminations from both cup competitions have come as a blessing in disguise. Had Villa advanced into the latter stages of the Carling Cup and defeated Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup, they simply would not be where they are in the league. The squad could not have sustained an extended push on three, or even two, fronts. But with full attention devoted to the league, they find themselves an odds-on favorite for a European place.
For that to happen, things will have to improve at the back. With 30-goals-against so far this term, Villa have the worst defensive record in the top-half of the table. However, those numbers should improve now that Zat Knight has lost his regular place. The gaffe-prone defender has been ousted by Curtis Davies; and the 22-year-old centre-half is finally starting to make good on the promise he displayed while at Luton Town and West Bromwich Albion.
Craig Gardner has also impressed. The 21-year-old enjoyed a superb start to the season before cooling-off and being relegated to the bench. But, as is so often the case with young players, he has rewarded the manager with good performances when called upon. As a stand-in for Gareth Barry at Liverpool on Monday, he absolutely ran Fabio Aurelio into the ground.
Despite the good players O'Neill has at his disposal he will need to bolster his squad to keep flying high in the Premier League.
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