Football: Villa challenge `in good shape'

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The Independent Online
THERE HAVE been some very good weeks in John Gregory's life as manager of Aston Villa, but the last has not been one of them. As Tommy Docherty once opined during a spell of turbulence: "If it wasn't for the League table there would be no fun at all."

To lose a striker was bad enough, but Stan Collymore was not the only person at Villa Park feeling shocked and depressed. There was also the little matter of the 30,000 or so with home allegiance who watched the team being bundled out of the FA Cup by Second Division Fulham.

Perversely though, both events might prove to be blessings come May. The first refuge of a beaten Cup manager is the freedom to concentrate on the League and as Villa are joint top of the Premiership that is no mere trifle.

Collymore's stress, too, at least eases the selection conundrum of trying to accommodate him, Dion Dublin, Paul Merson and Julian Joachim into two forward places. As Chelsea's Gianluca Vialli has found out since his dropped like flies, not having to make a decision about strikers makes life a lot easier.

Villa need to make the most of the silver linings because a scan of their fixture list reveals they are entering a crucial phase of the season. They have to put as much daylight as they can between themselves and rivals still embroiled in Europe and domestic cup competitions because they have a tough finish to the season.

Their last three away fixtures are at Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal. They might win them all, but it would be more comforting for the club if they have such a points advantage that draws would do. Today Villa go to Newcastle, where three points would throw down a challenge to United, Arsenal and Chelsea, a trio who do not play until tomorrow. To do so, however, would be to buck a trend.

"It has always been a difficult place for us to get points," Gregory said. "When we won at home in September it was the first time we'd beaten Newcastle in a Premiership match, so that gives you an idea of the problems we've had.

"But regardless of what has happened off the field this week, we're in good shape. In the last six Premiership matches we've won four, drawn one and got somewhat cheated at Blackburn, where we had to play with 10 men. Thirteen points out of the last 18 is championship form and we just need to reproduce that for the last 16 matches."

Against that Gregory ought to be aware that Villa have not won at St James's Park in any of the seven seasons they have won the championship.

Wimbledon play in another London derby today, but before the rest of the nation yawns Tottenham are not the opponents at Selhurst Park. The fresh faces are West Ham, who are rapidly becoming unfamiliar to their fans given the way Harry Redknapp is altering his squad.

Mixed messages have been emanating from Upton Park over whether Paolo Di Canio will start, but Marc-Vivien Foe will be the delight of headline writers everywhere. Expect a series of friend and foe screamers from now on, particularly as Wimbledon include the former Hammer John Hartson.

"John will be a handful," said Redknapp, who sold him for pounds 7.5m two weeks ago, "but I'm sure he'll be the first to shake my hand at the finish." If Hartson can remove them from Eyal Berkovic's neck, of course.

Liverpool suffered more than they deserved when the Theatre of Dreams turned into an FA Cup nightmare last Sunday, and their list of recuperative destinations would not have included Coventry.

They have won only one Premiership match at Highfield Road, although it would be a brave man to stake much on that because both teams are as predictable as the weather.

At least Liverpool score goals, which is not something you can accuse Everton of. OK, it is becoming a cliche to bemoan the lack of action at Goodison Park, but it comes to something when the home crowd moans when the fourth official signals a number bigger than "one" for added time.

At least today there is hope they can improve on their home goals tally of three as visitors Nottingham Forest have shipped them at the rate of more than two a game on their travels. Then again Everton have gone 239 minutes without a Premiership goal and guess who are just below them on 216?

Southampton, walloped 7-1 at Liverpool last time, will have more than one club looking if they beat Leeds at The Dell, while Blackburn will be embellished by the debuts of Matt Jansen and Jason McAteer against Tottenham.

Tomorrow Arsenal meet Chelsea in a high-pressure match that is not expected to improve either of their poor disciplinary records while Charlton, who ended an eight-match losing run with a 2-2 draw against Newcastle, play host to Manchester United.

United have lost their last two League visits to Charlton and their last win there was in August 1967.