Club Focus – Aston Villa – Martin O’Neill’s men answer their critics

If there was a time for the Villans to answer their critics, it was last night. After only two matches in the season, O’Neill rightly thought it was “staggering” that people have already been writing off Villa’s chances. Facing Liverpool at Anfield was never going to be an easy fixture, and the odds were heavily against the away side getting anything out of the game. However, and quite remarkably, Aston Villa were able to easily brush aside a poor Reds side.

Villa’s goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, was the hero in Monday night’s 3-1 victory. He pulled off a string of excellent and vital saves to prevent Liverpool from taking the lead early on. His presence in the Villa box was felt as Rafael Benitez’s side failed to break the deadlock. A modest Friedel was quick to praise his fellow teammates’ performances as “outstanding” and he felt his defence had regained their form.

In all areas of the pitch, Martin O’Neill’s team were resolute, quick and intelligent. The defence in particular held firm to prevent Benitez’s strong attacking force from scoring early. Curtis Davies – who had a poor game at Wigan – was one of Villa’s best players as he commanded the back four and got on the score sheet in the process. The defence tightly marked Liverpool’s attacking threat, committed themselves to challenges and constantly got in front of any shots on goal. As a result, a frustrated Liverpool attack failed to create many chances after their spell of dominance inside the first twenty minutes.

With the defence looking strong again, all eyes were set on the midfield which had previously failed both to create any goal scoring opportunities for the strikers and failed to support the back four. However, O’Neill’s decision to employ Petrov in the defensive midfield role proved to be essential in maintaining strength at the back and the Villa manager might just have found the perfect replacement for Gareth Barry. Nigel Reo-Coker dictated the play in the centre of midfield whilst the wingers, Milner and Young, constantly threatened the Liverpool defenders with sharp wing play.

The counter-attacking football played by Villa complemented the exceptional defensive performance and by half-time they were 2-0 up. Liverpool may have had many more chances on goal, but Villa managed to make their few count. O’Neill will undoubtedly hope for more of the same when they take on Rapid Vienna on Thursday in the second leg of their Europa League qualifier. If the Villans continue to be dangerous upfront and continue to create chances, then O’Neill’s men should be able to turn around the 1-0 deficit.

This Sunday sees the Villans host Fulham in the Premier League. It will be a match that they need to win to prove their campaign is effectively up and running. In hindsight, the following three games in September – Birmingham, Portsmouth and Blackburn – should be matches that Villa will look to take all three points from if they are to prove themselves as a team which can challenge the top four this season.

Even with a significant amount of confidence restored in the Villa dressing room, O’Neill still addressed his concerns with the reaction of some of the fans: “To get the abuse we got against Wigan was not warranted”, and of course it was not. After one game the course of the season cannot be judged. However, in a positive light, it may just prove to fuel the Villa players even more and in turn help to create more promising performances.

As good as the Liverpool result was, for Villa to truly be anything like the team they were last season they have to keep on winning. In the Villans’ European campaign it is all to play for against Rapid Vienna and O’Neill must ensure that his team maintains the excellent form that led to the 3-1 victory over the Reds.

Despite the excellent defensive performance by the on Monday, O’Neill is still searching for an experienced centre-back. According to sources, a bid has been made for Portsmouth’s Sylvain Distin and the 31-year-old Frenchman would definitely be an essential addition to the defence. If Villa can progress in the Europa League on Thursday, then the fans can well and truly believe that their season has finally kicked off – if a little late.

Aston Villa Club Focus

Can Villa handle the pressure? – August 5
Pre-season promises much for Europa League -August 12
Impotent Villa need to regroup – August 18
Improving Villa lack creativity upfront – August 22
Martin O’Neill’s men answer their critics – August 25

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