Club Focus – Aston Villa – O’Neill’s call for improvement

Having already beaten Chelsea, Liverpool and drawn with Manchester City, Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham provide the next tough test for Martin O’Neill’s Villans. The Villa manager will want his team to respond after last weekend’s disappointing draw against Burnley, particularly in front of their home fans. The mentality in the Spurs dressing room, on the other hand, will be exuberant the moment as the players will still be on a high following their 9-1 thrashing of Wigan.

Great excitement surrounds the clash, especially because both teams are identifying themselves as early contenders to break into the top four. Liverpool’s recent poor run in the Premier League means that Harry Redknapp’s side and Villa sit in 4th and 5th place respectively. In essence, the match is a must win for O’Neill as it would mean the Villans would be on level points with Spurs as well as Arsenal if Chelsea beat them on Sunday. The Villa skipper, Stiliyan Petrov, said that the Tottenham clash will be a tough challenge for the Villans, however a victory would prove their top four credentials: “Both teams will be out to show what level they are at the moment, and both are trying to crack the top four which is very hard.” John Carew also highlighted the Spurs threat, but suggested that confidence is high in the Villa camp: “We know we have a team good enough to compete for fourth place and there is no reason we should be scared of Tottenham or the likes of Manchester City.”

However, the Villans have been criticised for not having the essential winning mentality the other teams in the top half of the Premier League possess. It cannot be denied that the Villa players have gone into certain games without any real attacking purpose and as a result they have suffered with defeats and draws in which they have lost valuable points. For the first time, O’Neill discussed what he believes his side have to do in order to improve on their sixth place finish last season and to break into the elite group of the top four.

The Villa manager believes that his side must “improve technically” in terms of the way they conduct themselves in games. O’Neill wants “the whole side to be comfortable on the ball” so that they will be able to improve their passing game, particularly when put under pressure. He also wants to see his side build from the back to create opportunities attack, without relying on their usual counter-attacking football. O’Neill highlights Chelsea as the team to take their inspiration from as they have a “great mentality, work ethic, and are physically very strong.”

The key to winning consistently, according to O’Neill, is to go into every game with the belief that you are going to win and to stay mentally strong throughout the game to prevent any set-backs. Now that he has indentified his players’ faults, time will tell if a visible change is evident in the way the Villans conduct themselves in matches. And that starts against Tottenham. The players must forget Spurs’ recent run of good form and go into the match believing they have what it takes to win the match, and take the much needed three points. However, with dangerous players such as Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane in the Tottenham set-up, the Villa defence cannot afford to make any mistakes and they must remain in full concentration throughout the game.

Moving away from Saturday’s late kick-off, a Villa player who has not managed to achieve consistency is Gabriel Agbonlahor. Despite starting the season in excellent form with a good goal-scoring record, the Villa striker has been kept quiet recently. With Wayne Rooney being England’s first-choice striker, there are around two or three more forward places available. Whilst Tottenham’s Defoe is making his claim for being one of the Premier League’s most feared strikers, Agbonlahor must increase his tally of six league goals this season in order to compete with the other England hopefuls. Saturday’s game would be an excellent opportunity to return to his goal scoring form under the observant eyes of Head Coach Fabio Capello.

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