Club Focus – Aston Villa – Do Villa have what it takes to challenge the top four?

After putting their Premier League defeat against Wigan and their Europa League exit behind them, Villa responded with another victory to record back-to-back Premier League wins. Martin O’Neill was quoted as saying:“We find ourselves in a good position (in the Premier League).” However, to remain in the top half of the league, Villa must return after the international break with consistent performances and most importantly, a sequence of victories. New signing, Richard Dunne has already targeted a top four finish this season: “Hopefully I can be part of a squad that can challenge for a Champions League spot.” Last season, Villa remained at the top four spot for some time and they kept Arsenal, who were in fifth place, at bay. However, a poor run of results towards the end of the season jeopardised their position and their Champions League place. The main problem was that the Villans were not consistent enough to maintain their excellent form and a series of injuries to Martin Laursen did not help Villa defensively. This time, however, with a strengthened squad, time will tell if Villa can use the experience they gained from the last campaign in order to challenge for and ultimately achieve a top four finish.

If there was an area that Martin O’Neill needed to strengthen, it was the defence. Therefore, in the summer transfer window, four out of the seven summer signings were defenders. In total, Villa now have six first team central defenders – Wilfred Bouma, Ciaran Clark, James Collins, Carlos Cuellar, Curtis Davies and Richard Dunne – four of which are fully fit. If anything, O’Neill will have trouble choosing which centre-backs to start as opposed to last season where he had to ensure that his defenders remained fit and uninjured. Dunne will be the one most likely to feature in the majority of games as his presence in the box will be essential. If the former Manchester City captain can keep his discipline and not pick up any injuries, then he could play an important part in Villa’s campaign, in addition to this Villa have four full-backs, two right-backs and two left-backs. With a squad of 10 first team defenders, Martin O’Neill is certainly not lacking in depth and as the season progresses he will ensure that his defenders are kept fresh. In addition to the defence, O’Neill has a vast array of midfield talent to choose out of for the remainder of the season. He has the choice between two defensive minded midfielders in Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker plus the attack-minded Fabian Delph and Steve Sidwell. If Aston Villa are going to sustain a challenge to the top four, O’Neill will have to choose his central midfielders depending on the opposition. The 4-5-1 formation O’Neill used against Liverpool proved to be effective as Villa were able to get men back to curb Liverpool’s attacking threat as well as hit them on the counter attack. As soon as the wingers – Ashley Young and James Milner – return to their creative form of last season, Villa will have no problem creating goal scoring opportunities.

Up front is where O’Neill faces his biggest weakness – not in terms of numbers but in terms of consistency. Gabriel Agbonlahor, John Carew and Emile Heskey only recorded 25 Premier League goals between them last season and this poor record must not follow into this campaign. With the 2010 World Cup drawing closer and closer, Heskey and Agbonlahor will need to prove how deadly they both are in front of goal. Fabio Capello has a vast selection of talented strikers to choose from and Agbonlahor in particular will have to prove that he has what it takes to be a part of the England national squad. The desire to go to South Africa may be a factor which may result in plenty more goals from the Villa strike pair. After spending £40m in the summer transfer period, Villa’s squad has been very much strengthened and the selection difficulties O’Neill will be faced with highlight the depth of the squad. O’Neill’s tactics, keeping players fit, and more goals could all prove to be vital factors if Villa can emulate their form at the beginning of last season. Undeniably it is going to be tough to break into the top four as more teams are challenging. However, with the experience Villa gained from last season, they might have a good chance of doing so, but they will have to remain consistent throughout.

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