Avoiding the drop would be like winning a trophy, says Houllier

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The Independent Football

Seven Football League titles. Seven FA Cups. Five League Cups. Oh, and one European Cup. Aston Villa are steeped in silverware, but they go into today's Second City derby at Birmingham City with Gérard Houllier claiming that Premier League survival will be like adding to their haul.

"At the moment our trophy is to get out of the relegation zone," said the Villa manager. "You need to have long-term targets but in the short and medium term that's our aim."

He added: "I believe in the team and the squad I have. The determination of the senior players is there and so is the hunger of the young players. I don't think it helps to be panicky."

The "R" word, banned by some managers, is sprinkled throughout Houllier's remarks. "We're in a battle to avoid relegation," he said bluntly. "It's better to be honest with the media and the fans. It's a fact. We're in the bottom three and the target is to get out."

Houllier has been in such a parlous position only once before. "I was bottom with Paris St-Germain. It was the same scenario: we had injuries and lost confidence. We had a top-class player who lost his mother. He had eight goals when she died and in the rest of the season he got one. But we finished mid-table."

Villa, to an even greater extent than a Birmingham side just one point ahead of them, have underachieved. Houllier called them "unlucky", and in terms of injuries to senior players such as captain Stiliyan Petrov and vice-captain Nigel Reo-Coker, he had a point. Yet when he said they were also "unlucky in the way games have turned against us", he was rather stretching it. "We've lost 14 points from leading positions. If we'd lost just half of that we'd have 28 points."

Martin O'Neill left with six successive wins over Birmingham. Houllier's first derby, in October, was a 0-0 home draw and last month Villa lost 2-1 away with a Carling Cup semi-final at stake despite looking likely winners for long spells.

"This is the biggest game of the season," he said. "It's massive for us. At the same time I've said to the players, focus on the game and the result will take care of itself. We're in charge of producing something on the field but it's very important not to be obsessed by the stakes. The players are up for it. They'll be ready. They started talking about it early, which is a good sign.

"The local boys are obviously relishing it," Houllier added. "Marc Albrighton felt miserable not to play in the first game because he was suspended and for the second one he had appendicitis."

Albrighton will start today, but Jean II Makoun, the 27-year-old Cameroon midfielder who Villa signed yesterday, will not play. Houllier is also keeping his opposite number Alex McLeish guessing as to whether John Carew will return alongside serial derby scorer Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Birmingham City v Aston Villa is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 12pm