Football: Villa given fresh impetus

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Brian Little's chance to manage Aston Villa arose exactly three years ago after the double whammy of a Uefa Cup exit and a defeat at Selhurst Park ended Ron Atkinson's reign. Coincidence contrived a potential repeat of that scenario this week, but a stirring win over Athletic Bilbao means that Little's team visit Crystal Palace on Saturday with a fresh opportunity to relaunch their season.

How slender is the margin between success and the sack. The skids were under Atkinson after Villa beat Trabzonspor 2-1 only to go out on away goals. This time, an identical scoreline saw them into the last 16 by the narrowest of margins, ensuring a Premiership presence alongside the likes of Ajax, Atletico Madrid and Internazionale in tomorrow's third- round draw.

Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, laughed off suggestions that history had threatened to repeat itself, saying: "It's nothing like that [Atkinson's departure] at all. I hope Brian will be here for a long, long time to come. I stand with him one thousand per cent." Ellis, whose agreement with Channel 5 ended with the Bilbao tie, also hopes to negotiate a lucrative new television deal.

If the manner of Villa's victory reassured restless supporters, it also posed the question as to why they appear incapable of reproducing such form in the League. They took maximum points from the games immediately after the first-round tie with Bordeaux, and drew at Arsenal on the back of the Basque country trip, but consistency has eluded them.

It may, therefore, take more than a win over Palace to convince their more sceptical fans. Yet after the home failure against Chelsea, which was sandwiched between unexpected expressions of disquiet by Savo Milosevic and Gareth Southgate, there was a sense in which Wednesday's triumph purged Villa's system.

Southgate had an outstanding game, as did Fernando Nelson, the Portuguese wing-back revelling in a midfield marking role. Milosevic also enjoyed one of his better nights in tandem with Dwight Yorke, while Stan Collymore, intriguingly, stayed on the bench. "A result like this can change everything," Yorke said. "Hopefully it will begin the healing process we need."