Martin O’Neill’s call for five wins from their last five matches is still a possibility after the Villans left Fratton Park with all three points after beating a resolute Portsmouth side. Although Villa’s chances of finishing fourth are still a possibility, the six point gap between sixth and fourth place suggests that Villa should focus on solidifying a Europa League place in order to ensure European football next season.
Despite having nothing to play for in the Premier League, Avram Grant’s men were able to contain the Villans with a spirited performance. On nine minutes, the home side were a goal to the good after Anthony Vanden Borre slipped past Stephen Warnock in the Villa penalty area and his incisive pull-back reached Michael Brown who curled a shot past Brad Friedel. John Carew almost levelled straight away after his shot from point-blank range from Gabriel Agbonlahor’s cross was hit straight at David James. The Norwegian was gifted another opportunity after beating the offside trap to stride on to a long angled ball from Warnock and into an undefended penalty area. With just the goalkeeper to beat, the No 10 set himself and struck a fierce effort to the keeper’s right.
The Villans had three legitimate penalty shouts and one was given after Papa Bouba Diop tripped Carew. Nevertheless, despite Carew’s powerful effort, James was on hand to prevent the visitors from taking the lead. “I have not had the chance to see the Petrov incident again but the first one was a penalty. Mind you, the way we are going, there is no guarantee that we would have put it in, as big John showed,” commented O’Neill afterwards. Towards the end of the game, a mixture of poor finishing and good goalkeeping made it seem as though the Midlanders would have to settle for a point. However, O’Neill sent on Emile Heskey and Nathan Delfouneso and the pair combined for the winning goal. James Milner’s cross was glanced on by Heskey and Delfouneso, with his first touch, ensured the Villans three points.
While O’Neill hailed Delfouneso’s “exceptional talent” in a post-match interview, he also made his thoughts clear on Villa’s position in the league: “We know that we are outsiders for the top four but we still have everything to play for. We have to win all our remaining games.” In order for the Midlanders to be in any contention for a top-six finish, they will need a considerable amount of points in order to secure a European place. With four games left to go, the Villans face two tricky away games against Hull on Wednesday and Manchester City, as well as home ties against rivals Birmingham and Blackburn Rovers. As the Villa manager rightly said, they must try and win all of their remaining games and hope Tottenham and Manchester City drop points in the final run-in.
As the season draws to an end, Martin O’Neill is anticipating interest in his most talented players in the summer. The Northern Irishman has highlighted James Milner and Ashley Young, in particular, as possible targets: “James Milner has been a revelation. He’s just a different player. He’s got the energy, the determination and, more importantly than anything, he’s got the ability. He looks as if he has played [in central midfield] since he was 16. And I know sometimes [the Press] think Ashley Young is maybe not the same as last season but that’s not my view. I think he is even better than ever.” However, O’Neill believes that his two talented players will be better suited at Villa with the chance of playing first team football every week: “They have had a chance here to play week-in, week-out in the side to get their confidence going, to get their ability going. But they might be in a more rotational business and, just at this minute, that would be something that is a consideration because most players want to play every single week.” Losing players such as Milner and Young would considerably weaken the Villans and unless they establish themselves as serious high flyers in the league, clubs will definitely come in for their essential players.
With three points gained from a difficult away game, the Villans travel to Hull on Wednesday in the hope that they can put pressure on Tottenham and Manchester City by sealing another three points to put them within one point of City and three of Spurs.