It appears as though the Villans have hit a rich vein of form at the perfect time, with only three matches left, Villa have picked up 10 points out of a possible 12 in their last four league games. They have moved within three points of Tottenham and within one of Manchester City, reigniting their hopes for a fourth place finish.
Gabriel Agbonlahor’s 16th goal of the season put Villa ahead early on in the game after Ibrahima Sonko, Steven Mouyokolo and Paul McShane all failed to clear Stiliyan Petrov’s clipped pass up field. The balls ricochet off John Carew into the path of Agbonlahor, who expertly struck an unstoppable right-foot shot past Matt Duke. Villa enjoyed the majority of the possession and Petrov, James Milner and Ashley Young had time and space in midfield, working the ball to Agbonlahor and Carew at every opportunity. Their domination in midfield duly led to the second goal when Carew passed to Milner in the penalty area, who was clumsily brought down by George Boateng. The England midfielder converted the resulting penalty, sending Duke the wrong way.
O’Neill reacted with his usual modesty in a post-match interview, claiming: “We’ve come back and taken 10 out of the last 12 points. I think the team has shown a great deal of character all season and I think that was epitomised tonight. We’re in the mix. We’re going for everything and guaranteed nothing. We’re not even guaranteed to finish eighth in the league at this minute.” All Villa can do now is focus on winning their final three matches and seeing where they find themselves come the end of the season. While the Villans host local rivals Birmingham City at Villa Park on Sunday, Tottenham are away to Manchester United and Manchester City are away to Arsenal. O’Neill will definitely see the match against Birmingham as a chance to put even more pressure on the teams competing for the fourth Champions League spot, particularly if Spurs and City drop points on the weekend. Milner has been the subject of much speculation recently, with reports that Manchester City are targeting the Villa midfielder. If City are to qualify for the Champions League this season, it will be difficult to blame the England midfielder for snatching the opportunity if it arises. However, just as Gareth Barry did when he left the Villans for the Citizens, Milner would definitely leave an enormous gap in the centre of midfield. Although O’Neill could use the money for a replacement, it would be difficult to replace Milner’s hard-working nature, his incredible stamina, incisive passing, determination to change games and his ability to score goals. Perhaps what Villa would miss most is his versatility, something which has guaranteed him a place on the plane to South Africa in the summer.
The Villa manager, on the other hand, suggested that he is keen to keep his important players: “I would like to keep players as long as possible; some others you have to let go. [But] that’s not the case with the players we have here. No-one here has asked to leave the football club and the progress we have made here this season suggests that, not only themselves, but the club is going in the right direction.” Although not stated, Villa’s position come the end of the season could determine which players leave and which players remain. An improved position from last year could see one or two big name signings come in, particularly if the Villans are contesting in European competition.
As the season draws to a close, O’Neill must ensure that his players remain focused from now until the end of the season. With no other distractions, the Villans should attempt to secure a place in a European competition next season. Despite all the usual anticipation to a local derby, the one on Sunday could prove pivotal to Villa’s season.
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