As Martin O’Neill looks at his upcoming fixture list for this month, he will know that each match is just as important as the other as Villa try to take on two cup competitions as well as the difficult yet achievable task of maintaining the challenge for a Champions League spot.
Out of the five fixtures in February, one is an FA Cup fifth round tie against Championship side Crystal Palace and one is the much-anticipated Carling Cup final against current-holders, Manchester United. Not only does this month offer the chance of silverware for the Birmingham side, it also offers the opportunity to progress to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. In terms of the Premier League, fixtures against Manchester United, Burnley and most importantly Tottenham Hotspur pose a challenge to Villa’s consistency and ultimately their position in the league.
Their biggest test comes on Saturday against fellow top-four aspirants, Spurs, who find themselves in the promising position of fourth place. A victory would put the Villans above the north London side into fourth place, providing Liverpool do not win. Emile Heskey recently claimed that Villa’s victory over Fulham last week highlighted their top four credentials: “You see teams – top-four teams – go there and get outplayed but we really got at them and I think we deserved the points.” Whilst the defences of Liverpool and Manchester United were terrorised by a rampant Fulham attack, the Villa back four proved why they have the current best defensive record. The Villans have only conceded 18 goals in 23 games, the least number of goals in the Premier League, further emphasising just how successful Martin O’Neill’s defensive additions were at the start of the season.
Richard Dunne has undoubtedly been Villa’s most influential defender so far in terms of his leadership, determination and defensive ability. He commands the back-line well and this season there has been an obvious stability in the Villa defensive ranks. His Premier League experience has also been essential, and his understanding of the English game is a reason why he is one of Villa’s indispensable defenders. In terms of his ability, Dunne can time his tackles to perfection, one of his biggest strengths is marking and he is a brilliant header of the ball at both ends of the pitch. However, what makes him such a good player is his consistency and O’Neill can rely on him to rarely put a foot wrong.
With the arrival of James Collins, it appeared as though Carlos Cuellar would play his part as a right-back, however, as the season progressed, O’Neill has been playing Cuellar in his preferred position at centre-back. The significance of this decision cannot be stressed enough as Cuellar alongside Dunne have forged an excellent defensive partnership in the heart of the Villa defence. Cuellar’s strengths include his ability to close down opposition strikers, his positioning and his determination to get in front of any shot. His partnership with Dunne can often make it almost impossible to penetrate the Villa back-line. Luke Young and Stephen Warnock have both been impressive at full-back for Villa and perhaps O’Neill’s tactics have been a reason for this. Both play very defensively and rarely go on the overlap and a benefit of this is that Villa will never be caught on the counter-attack with little numbers as O’Neill prefers to keep all his defenders together. Warnock can block, tackle, clear and win the ball as well as bring it forward on occasions and his consistency in the left-back role has earned him an England call-up. The constant support of the wingers providing extra support on the flanks has helped to solidify the defence further.
Whilst it is difficult to fault the Villa defence at times, the role of Brad Friedel in the Villa net cannot be overlooked. Whenever Villa are on the back foot, Friedel can always be counted on to make a save and he has done so on many occasions, earning a few clean sheets in the process. O’Neill can definitely have confidence in his defence, but he will hope that his attacking players can be just as effective in the opposite end of the pitch. February will be a difficult month for the Villans, but a victory against Tottenham at the weekend would increase morale in the Villa dressing room and ultimately give the players the impetus to perform well on all fronts.
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