Worried Villa fans will want to know the cause of their club’s recent bad run of form after losing their last two games in a row. O’Neill’s men were hoping to put their disappointing loss at Wigan behind then by making a strong start to their Europa League campaign. However, the combination of an early goal and a lack of creativity in the final third of the pitch amounted to a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the play-off round. When Villa crashed out of the UEFA Cup last season, O’Neill’s decision to play a weakened squad was criticised by many and seen as the reason for their exit. This time O’Neill fielded a strong squad, with only four changes from the side that lost to Wigan at the weekend. Brad Friedel was replaced with fellow countryman, Brad Guzan. He had an awful start after watching a headed goal hit the back of the Villa net after just forty seconds.
It seems to be problem after problem for O’Neill and when one is solved, another one arises. For example, the Villa defence has been at the forefront of criticism recently. Many experts questioned the cohesiveness between Curtis Davies and Carlos Cuellar and pointed out how vulnerable the Villans were defensively. O’Neill was quick to notice and attempted to solve this problem. On Thursday Villa defended resolutely and, to the relief of many fans, looked convincing and commanding at the back for the first time since the absence of Martin Laursen. So where are Villa lacking now then? The answer is upfront. The Villa midfield for the remainder of the game failed to create any clear cut chances for their forwards. The closest they came was with an Emile Heskey header which flew harmlessly over the bar. The five man midfield of Milner, Sidwell, Reo-Coker, Gardner and Young, failed to create any decent chances for the strikers. With the defence looking stable again, Villa need to find their goal scoring form once more to be anything like the impressive team they were last year.
With Liverpool up next at Anfield, O’Neill must get the balance back into his squad if they are to stand any chance of getting a result out of the match. Benitez’s men demolished Stoke City in mid week and kick started their Premier League campaign. Undeniably, Villa need to avoid a third successive defeat, but it will be a truly difficult game in which to do it. O’Neill believes that his team needs: “to improve and keep improving” and once they: “settle down” in the league, they will put in a string of good performances. Steve Sidwell stated that, “there’s been a lot of progression at other clubs but we’ve got more than enough to deal with that and contend”. Despite Villa’s poor start to the campaign, Sidwell believes that Villa have what it takes to challenge for a top six place once again. Nigel Reo-Coker also did not hesitate to regain some lost confidence after he insisted that the squad must, “stay positive” and improve on their poor performances and get a result both at Anfield and at Villa Park in the second leg.
In terms of importance the Europa League play off second leg is without a doubt more important than the trip to Anfield. A result against Liverpool would definitely restore some much needed confidence in the dressing room and for the fans, but it is still early days in the season. O’Neill rightly indentified that it is still, “all to play for” in the second leg and with the support of the Villa Park crowd, the Villains will be looking to turn round the one goal deficit and progress in the competition. O’Neill’s men must attack right from the off creating chances for the forwards if they are going to have any hope of winning the tie. O’Neill’s firm belief that: “there’s nothing fundamentally wrong” with the club suggests that Villa have just had a difficult time adjusting to the new season and that time will allow the squad to get back to winning games. The fans, however, are unwilling to wait and their growing impatience is shown as they continue to boo O’Neill’s men. Before the Villa players can restore the confidence in their fans, they have to restore the confidence in themselves.