Davies rallies Villa ahead of 'crunch time' in the race for Europe

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The Independent Online

Curtis Davies believes the battle for fourth place and a coveted Champions League place will be a closely contested three-way affair between Aston Villa, Arsenal and Everton.

The Villa centre-half, who scored against West Bromwich last weekend, has been a key figure in his side's impressive run of form. Villa are unbeaten in their last nine league games, from which they have collected 21 points. Now they have a run of games which they would deem winnable – against Sunderland, Portsmouth, Wigan and Blackburn before facing Chelsea on 21 February.

But Davies is aware Villa have dropped points in the past from matches they were expected to win ahead of tomorrow's trip to the Stadium of Light and they cannot afford to do so as "crunch time" approaches. "We've started the first half of the season well but now it's the crunch time," he said. "We need to keep going and keep as many points between the others and us as we can. We are not getting too excited about being fourth at present. Arsenal have got a strong squad and Everton have got strikers to come back from injury so they are going to be fighting for that place as well. We need to keep going. Come May if we are still up there that's when we can start celebrating."

Davies added: "People say that on paper the next four games look winnable – but sometimes we have let ourselves down against teams we should beat. For example, Middlesbrough came to Villa Park when not in the best form and won. You can never rest on your laurels and we know Sunderland is a hard place to go. The fans there are fanatics and it's probably going to be bitter up there as well."

Davies has warned Villa's back four to be on their guard against the Sunderland strike force of Kenwyne Jones and Djibril Cissé, who have hit form in recent games. "We have to be very aware of Jones and Cissé because they are building up a good understanding. Jones was injured for a while and he was a big miss but he's back and making a really good impression. It will be different from the clash at Villa Park when Cissé played up front by himself. The pair will be a threat on Saturday."

Davies believes the appointment of Ricky Sbragia in place of Roy Keane as the Black Cats manager has lifted the Sunderland players. "It's never easy going up to the north-east, whether it is Sunderland, Newcastle or Middlesbrough. They have passionate fans and they are tough teams. Ricky Sbragia has come in and it's given the lads a lift. He has obviously taken a different approach and it's working. Let's hope we put a spanner in the works when we play them."

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