Villa Beginning To Mix It With

With the Merseyside duo of Liverpool and Everton beginning to pull away in the race for the final Champions League berth and the goings on in the FA Cup likely to mean that only one UEFA Cup qualifying spot being available via the Premiership, it is looking increasingly as if Aston Villa’s European ambitions for next season will rest with the much-maligned Intertoto Cup, barring an unlikely series of results elsewhere.

However the current season eventually pans out, it has already been a highly impressive campaign for Martin O’Neill’s men. A sign of the team’s character is that they have suffered only two away defeats in the Premiership to date (ahead of Saturday’s trip to Portsmouth), the first at Manchester City when Sven Goran Eriksson’s team were beating all and sundry at the City of Manchester Stadium and, far more surprisingly, a 2:1 loss at Fulham last month.

There have also been encouraging signs of late in terms of Villa beginning to prove themselves capable of competing with the Big Four, with a win at home to Chelsea early on in the season and, since Christmas, draws at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and the Emirates Stadium testament to their ability to now mix it with the best on a regular basis.

Manchester United remain very much Villa’s bogey team, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s team winning each of the last 13 competitive matches between the two, and Villa’s last victory being way back in 1999 in a League Cup tie at home against a predictably second-string visiting side. The last league win was in August 1995, 3:1 on the opening day of the season at Villa Park (a result that gave rise to Alan Hansen’s oft quoted line, “you win nothing with kids”).

One only has to consider the achievements of those “kids” in the years since to appreciate that another Villa success against the Red Devils is long overdue. They have another chance to put the record straight when they visit Old Trafford at the end of March but, whatever the result then, Villa under O’Neill seem to have more resilience than for many a year and they shouldn’t have to wait too much longer before breaking that long barren run.

The transfer activity at Villa Park over the summer will be among the most keenly observed in the Premiership, with the need for reinforcements having been well chronicled. Villa’s squad is small by any standards, let alone that of a Premiership club with European aspirations.

There are some obvious areas of concern, with a permanent deal for Scott Carson or a viable alternative required in goal and a couple of defenders (a natural right-back has long seemed a priority) to compensate for the Juventus-bound Olof Mellberg and the January sale of Gary Cahill. A permanent deal for Curtis Davies is still set to go through at the end of the season, despite the defender having undergone surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles. The fact that he is not scheduled to play again until October only accentuates the need for more defensive cover.

Further additions in both midfield and attack wouldn’t go amiss either, but O’Neill is canny enough not to bring in new players just for the sake of adding numbers, especially with the spirit within the current squad seemingly so strong and with the youth set-up that he inherited continuing to pay dividends.

A third FA Youth Cup Final appearance in seven years is on the cards following a 1:1 draw at Chelsea in their semi-final 1st leg and the likes of Nathan Delfouneso, Barry Bannan and Harry Forrester could soon be pushing for places in the first-team squad.

Given what has been achieved with fairly limited resources this term, next season could see Villa not only competing with the big boys, but getting in among them in the race for Champions League places.

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