O'Neill defends retreat from Moscow

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The Independent Football

It all happened more than six weeks ago, but it is still the talk of the Aston Villa chat forums and will probably go down as the defining moment of what could have been a momentous season. So on Friday, even with a key game at home to Everton to consider, Martin O'Neill spent much time going over the same topic again: "Moscow."

In seven days at the end of February, his team had been dumped out of the FA Cup by today's opponents, lost third place in the Premier League with a home defeat by Chelsea and been held at Villa Park in the first leg of the Uefa Cup tie with CSKA Moscow. For the return game, O'Neill decided to leave eight senior players behind to rest ahead of the home game with Stoke.

Supporters who spent about £1,000 travelling to Moscow were not best pleased and the game, unsurprisingly, was lost 2-0. Worse, however, was the late capitulation to Stoke, who turned a 2-0 deficit after 88 minutes into a draw; Villa had lost out all round and have yet to recover.

Four successive defeats have followed, the last two alternately humiliating (5-0 at Liverpool) and sickening (3-2 to two more late goals at Manchester United). Arsenal, who had been concerned about losing a Champions' League place, have turned round a seven-point gap and Everton will push Villa down to sixth position if they continue their own fine run this afternoon.

So, Martin, the retreat from Moscow and the Uefa Cup? The former law student puts his case with predictable passion and eloquence. "By February time, we had played something like 14 more games than [at the same time] last season with a squad that was not much larger, and we had a chance of maybe breaking into the top four.

"I had to prioritise. There were people who should have known better, ex-players, saying the Uefa Cup was there for the taking. But we were in the last 32, not the last eight or 16. Tottenham had made their intentions clear too, sending out a youth (sic) side to [Shakhtar] Donetsk. Manchester City were not sitting fourth or fifth in the League. This is a competition in which I took Celtic to the final, beating Liverpool along the way, it was fantastic, the most glorious trip [to Seville] imaginable. But we [Villa] did not have the squad size to cope with it."

Would he do the same again next season, prosecution counsel asks. "That's a very good point. I'm hoping those circumstances wouldn't arise again." In the bloated new Europa League, there is every chance they will, O'Neill's wish being that whatever competitions Villa are in, the club's hitherto supportive American owner, Randy Lerner, will have authorised as much if not more spending than last summer's £40 million.

That was a figure second only to City, who are in a league, if not a world, of their own. Supporters who travelled to Moscow may have been pacified by a special evening meal at Villa Park last Tuesday, when O'Neill put his case, though not all of them are convinced that the club have had any better value for money in the transfer market than they did with their Russian trip.

Steve Sidwell and Nicky Shorey have been among the disappointments; Emile Heskey was added for another £3.5m in January but has not scored since his debut and must now be considered second choice behind John Carew, who duplicates rather than complements him.

"The club has been in the doldrums for quite some time," O'Neill said, "with wee lifts here and there. What the Aston Villa fans want is to be competing and thinking they have got a chance of winning, going to matches thinking they are not going to get turned over."

Another chance comes round at 2pm today, and they need to take it.

Today's Games

ASTON VILLA v EVERTON (2pm, Setanta Sports 1)

While Everton have almost certainly left their run for a Champions' League place too late, Villa peaked too early. Not much doubt about who are the form horses: the home side have not won in nine; the visitors have lost only twice since early December.

MANCHESTER CITY v FULHAM (4.10pm, Sky Sports 1)

Lack of stomach for a fight away from home continues to cost City in the League and now the Uefa Cup, but at Eastlands they have put together six successive League wins, conceding only two goals.

Fulham are unlikely to give the admirable Shay Given as much work as Martin Jol's Hamburg did.

Steve Tongue