Football: Gregory troubled by Villa's vacant front line

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The Independent Online
DESPITE HIS team's three-point lead in the Premiership, John Gregory admitted yesterday that Aston Villa were missing Dwight Yorke and pledged to carry on spending.

Gregory, preparing for a Uefa Cup first round, first leg match at home to the Norwegians of Stromsgodset tonight, acknowledged that Villa's scoring capacity did not match their defensive capabilities. While anticipating that Paul Merson would be influential in correcting the imbalance, he promised not to rest on his laurels.

"I intend to keep strengthening the squad," Gregory said. "The great Liverpool side who won so many championships would always replace a couple of players. Arsene Wenger has done the same at Arsenal this year."

The Villa manager, who still has a transfer kitty of around pounds 20m, is keeping the names of his targets to himself. Weekend reports suggested he had tried to prise Alan Shearer from Newcastle, only to be told by Ruud Gullit that the England captain is not for sale. Shearer could take his pick of English, Spanish and Italian clubs, but Villa's apparent interest is an indication of the quality the former Wycombe manager wants to attract. Gregory confirmed Villa had been on the trail of Sweden's Fredrik Ljungberg, watching him as recently as last Thursday. "Our concern was whether he would get into the team. We pressed the pause button and he went to Arsenal."

After his injudicious comments in the wake of Yorke's departure to Manchester United - "If I'd had a gun, I'd have shot him" - Gregory was in conciliatory mood. "We're missing Yorkie. I can't deny that. He gave us a hell of lot going forward."

The prospect of the Champions' League was a key factor in Yorke's yearning for Old Trafford. "Playing for Trinidad & Tobago, he doesn't get the chance to perform before massive crowds at places like Juventus and Barcelona," Gregory said. "There are some big teams in the Uefa Cup but it isn't quite the same."

Villa are nonetheless anxious to enjoy another extended run after reaching the quarter-finals last spring. Being able to offer European football was a "selling point", according to Gregory, in wooing Alan Thompson from Bolton and Merson from Middlesbrough.

The former Arsenal player signed too late to be eligible tonight. In his absence - and that of Yorke, Savo Milosevic (also sold) and Stan Collymore (injured) from last year's campaign - Villa may deploy Riccardo Scimeca as a striker. The centre-back has not scored in 70 games, yet a lack of options means Gregory either goes with Scimeca or gambles on a raw reserve such as Darius Vassell.

Stromsgodset lie ninth in the Norwegian League after a 4-0 defeat by Staebak which took their goals-against column to 53 in 22 matches. However, they possess Premiership experience in the former Chelsea defender Erland Johnsen and the towering striker Jostein Flo, once of Sheffield United, and Gregory believes they will raise their game just as Villa would in Madrid or Turin.

"We won't be taking this one lightly. We worked too hard to get into Europe to do that." He was referring to the run of nine wins in 11 matches following his appointment, a sequence Villa have carried over into the new season. So which was their priority, the Premiership or Europe? "We've got to look after our League form before we're masters of time, space and dimension," Gregory replied, tongue perhaps in cheek but ambitions there for all to see.