Club Focus – Aston Villa – Three down, one to go

Aston Villa’s weekend victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford was their first since 1983 in a match where Peter Withe scored a double. However, 26 years later and Martin O’Neill has created a Premier League side that look more than capable of posing a difficult challenge for the best teams in England. The Villans have already taken 9 points off three of last season’s top four bar Arsenal who they play at the end of this month. O’Neill’s side now sit in fourth place in the League table after Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur all dropped valuable points in their respective matches.

Villa’s victory came from a master class in defence as much as from Manchester United’s impotency in front of goal. Carlos Cuellar and Richard Dunne were on top throughout the game, preventing United from making their possession count. All crossed balls from the opposite wingmen were expertly dealt with, frustrating the home side throughout the game. The Red Devils’ main threat came from diligent striker Wayne Rooney who was able to penetrate the Villa defence from time to time however, Brad Friedel was well equipped to pull of vital saves to keep his side in the lead. O’Neill praised his side’s excellent defensive performance, once again proving that his tactics were spot on: “There were times when United penned us in, but when we broke out we still made chances. Not only have we tightened up defensively, I thought we played pretty cleverly, standing off their forwards rather than diving in.”

Their clever defensive play was equally matched by their attacking play as Ashley Young and James Milner were a constant thorn to the United defence on the wings. Young, in particular, gave inexperienced right-back Darren Fletcher a terrible time, constantly putting him on the back foot with smart changes of speed and direction. It was Young who wrong-footed Fletcher before crossing the ball onto the head of Gabriel Agbonlahor to open the scoring. Their partnership which was an integral part of Villa’s success last season seems to have been revived and in doing so they have sent a clear message to Fabio Capello, especially after Michael Carrick and Michael Owen failed to impress for the home side. After the second half, the Red Devils were probing for an equaliser and the Villans were much more defensive than in the first half. Milner and Young were playing as temporary wing-backs, effectively stopping Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia from supplying Rooney. However, Villa did not succumb to the immense United pressure, instead, they hit them on the break in search of a goal which would have killed off the tie.

The victory was perhaps Villa’s most significant three points this season and this is a view shared by the manager and the players alike. O’Neill stated: “It probably gives us more confidence for Tuesday night which will be exceptionally difficult and we’ve got a hectic Christmas programme”, whilst Agbonlahor said: “It was just a top team performance. Any team that arrives at Old Trafford will have to defend for periods. They are a quality side but we showed the kind of spirit we have in the camp and we managed to pick up maximum points.” With a tough game away to Sunderland on Tuesday, O’Neill’s men will need to show this spirit against Steve Bruce’s Black Cats in order to keep morale high in the dressing room by taking all three points. It terms of points, it is very close in the top seven of the Premier League table and loss of points could see Villa drop back to fifth or sixth place.

Everyone in the Villa dressing room and behind the scenes will want to see Villa in fourth place at the end of the season and the Villans have proved that they are serious contenders for the Champions League spot by being the only team to have beaten three of the top four teams. City and Spurs have shown signs of consistency and it is now O’Neill’s job to ensure that his team remains consistent by having the same mentality against the top sides as well as the underdogs in the competition.

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