Club Focus – Aston Villa – Villa show signs of considerable progress after another solid campaign

Despite losing their final match of the season, the Villans have solidified a third successive sixth-place finish in the Premier League. With Liverpool failing to win away at Hull, Martin O’Neill’s side have avoided playing in an early Europa League third qualifying round on the 29 July.

The season began with a disappointing home defeat to Wigan Athletic, and unfortunately ended with another dismal result in front of the Villa Park faithful. James Collins came close to opening the scoring with a glancing header that was expertly saved by Paul Robinson who then stopped Gabriel Agbonlahor’s follow-up. James Milner’s ferocious free-kick was pushed away by Robinson while Stiliyan Petrov’s low-effort brushed the side netting. Both sides were denied clear penalties – David Dunn was booked for diving when in fact Collins tripped him in the area and Christopher Samba was not penalised for a foul on John Carew. Villa’s profligacy in front of goal was soon to be punished, as it has been all season, when Richard Dunne, under pressure from Junior Hoilett, inadvertently headed Martin Olsson’s cross past Brad Friedel.

The Midlanders only managed to secure two wins from nine league games at Villa Park in 2010 and this poor home form saw them slip from the fourth spot that they occupied at the halfway point of the season to sixth-place. With only six points separating Villa from a Champions League play-off place, Martin O’Neill will definitely look back and highlight the results that could have made significant differences in the battle for fourth place. However, O’Neill will be faced with the fact that the Villans picked up fewer points at home – 24 – than any other team in the top-half of the table. If the Villa manager is going to pinpoint damaging results, the ones that halted Villa’s ascendancy were draws with Stoke, Wolverhampton and Sunderland, which lost them six points. Perhaps two victories and a possible seven points may have taken the battle for fourth to the final day of the season.

Nevertheless, throughout the season, the Villans picked up nine wins and their impressive away form was the third best in the league in terms of victories, bar Chelsea and Manchester United. This is one of the substantial signs of Villa progress along with reaching the final of the Carling Cup, their first major final in a decade, reaching the final four of the FA Cup and accumulating their highest points tally since 1993. This week, O’Neill is set to continue talks with the Villa chairman, Randy Lerner, on his future at the club as well as the necessary improvements in order to compete strongly next season in the league.

Martin O’Neill, despite being linked with replacing Rafa Benitez at Liverpool, has given the biggest indication yet that he wants to remain the Villa manager in the ensuing season: “I think you have to have a commitment, which is there, you have to have an enthusiasm, a drive and determination and you have to renew that at the start of every season, me as a manager, which is a given, and I think owners of a football club, like Randy, would be exactly the same.” With Manchester City and Tottenham expected to spend more in the summer to strengthen their challenge for the next campaign, it is certain that Villa will need to spend big if they are to compete with their top four rivals in the future. O’Neill claimed that he was wary of City’s ability to spend, “Manchester City will be very disappointed they didn’t get into the Champions League. But you know that their intention is not just to break into the top four, but to try and win the championship – and they’ve got the spending power to do so.” He then identified the threat of Tottenham and Everton, “Well done, Tottenham. Brilliant effort to get there. And they, I would assume, would get stronger for the Champions League. And you can imagine Everton. I know David Moyes said when they’ve got everyone fit they’re a match for anybody.”

While the Villa defence has been one of the most consistent in the league, it has been the lack of potency in attack which has caused the Midlanders to lose vital points, especially against the lower-placed teams. If Randy Lerner provides the necessary funding, Villa will need to invest in another striker and another driving midfielder if they fail to hold onto James Milner after the World Cup. Although Carlos Cuellar has been impressive at right-back this season, the Villans still lack an orthodox right full-back, and seen as Habib Beye has been limited to very few performances, perhaps a strong full-back would be another good addition to squad. One star signing up front may be enough for Villa to improve next season, and perhaps O’Neill needs to improve the strength-in-depth of his squad. For many games this season, the Villa manager has stuck to his tried and trusted formula and fatigue has caught up with the players and ultimately cost them three points. O’Neill needs to invest in players that will be used in a squad rotation system in order to achieve consistency next season.

While O’Neill can look back on a generally successful campaign, he can also look at where Villa were weak and the required funding could see Villa contending for a Champions League spot come next season if the fundamental improvements are made.

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