Petrov alive to the perils of Larsson

Aston Villa v Manchester Utd: Bulgarian backs O'Neill to build a winning Villa tradition in the Fergie mould
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The Independent Football

Just when it appeared an opportune moment to brave the most treacherous deep of them all, up glides the ominous underwater shadow of "the ultimate predator". Martin O'Neill will know all about the menace Henrik Larsson represents to his side today. That was his description of the Swede when Sir Alex Ferguson enticed the striker on a three-month loan to Old Trafford.

Indeed, had there been the opportunity to lure Larsson to Villa Park, the Ulsterman would have moved swiftly to make him the fifth member of Aston Villa's branch of Old Bhoys Reunited, following the acquisition of Stilian Petrov, Chris Sutton and Didier Agathe (not forgetting the manager himself, of course) from Gordon Strachan's side.

But Larsson, the former Feyenoord, Celtic and Barcelona player, who joins from the Swedish side Helsingborgs during their close season, opted to answer Ferguson's overtures when the Manchester United manager sought forward cover.

Today on his United debut, in the BBC televised third-round FA Cup-tie at home to Aston Villa, he could be asked to forge a partnership with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. There will be scepticism in some quarters whether, at 35, Larsson can handle the rigours of the English game he has never experienced before.

But Villa's midfielder Petrov, a Celtic team-mate for five years, insists Larsson has demonstrated that he can perform anywhere, and at any level. "Of course the Premiership is different," says the former captain of Bulgaria. "The pace is so much faster; you don't stand still for a minute, and if you make even a small mistake you are punished for it. In every other league you can get away with a few games when you don't have to be at full performance, but in England every team has three or four special players. That's why the Premiership is the best in the world."

He adds: "I don't think Henrik will need time to adjust to the pace. He's played at the highest level, in the Champions' League and in international football. It won't be a problem to him.

"In England you maybe don't know how good he is yet. A lot of people questioned if he could do it somewhere else, but he went to Barcelona and proved them wrong. He didn't just do well there, he did very well - he won them a European Cup. People always question top players, but Henrik is a true great. He will always be asked questions but come back with the answers."

Petrov himself was originally brought to Celtic Park by John Barnes, but his relationship with O'Neill flourished once the Irishman arrived. There was no surprise when the playmaker with an eye for goal - he scored 63 for Celtic over seven seasons - became O'Neill's first signing, a £6.5 million purchase, when the manager succeeded David O'Leary in August.

The 27-year-old Bulgarian has made a fitful start to his Premiership career, as he concedes. "I think I have been OK; you can always ask for more. I'm very critical of myself. I know I can do better and I will do. I seem to have had so many times that I have nearly scored, when the ball has hit the woodwork or been cleared off the line. You go through spells like that sometimes and you know if you keep getting into the good positions then it will happen for you."

He believes that Ferguson has provided an excellent model for what can be achieved if a manager is given time and resources. "If Martin O'Neill stays at this club a long time then he will build it bigger and bigger and better and better," Petrov says. "You can see Sir Alex has had many years at Manchester United and built the club and built it more, and Martin can build Aston Villa in the same way, a bit better each year with players who will compete in every game and who will want to win."

Winning is not a word associated with Villa recently. But today could be their opportunity. All is relative where United's strength is concerned. But with Louis Saha injured and Wayne Rooney not quite performing at the summit of his powers, this could be the moment for Villa to secure at least a replay in a year when their hosts' priorities are the Premiership and the Champions' League.

But then again, with Larsson lurking, who knows? It could all end with Villa blood in the water.

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