Aston Villa have suffered an injury scare with captain Martin Laursen travelling to London yesterday to see a specialist for tests on an injured knee.
The influential central defender is now set to miss the crucial Boxing Day encounter with Arsenal at Villa Park – a game that will help define which of the two clubs finish in the top four of the Premier League this season.
There is concern at Villa over the extent of the Dane's injury and that he may be out for some time, particularly because he has suffered from serious knee damage in the past and was nearly forced to retire after missing the whole of the 2005-06 season.
However, manager Martin O'Neill was keen to stress yesterday that it was Laursen's "good knee" – the right one – that has been hurt following the 1-0 victory over West Ham United on Saturday evening that pushed Villa up to third place in the table.
It is the highest league position they have held for a decade, and leaves them just five points behind the leaders Liverpool and, crucially two points ahead of fifth-placed Arsenal who they are aiming to beat twice in a league season for the first time in 15 years.
O'Neill, however, does have injury concerns about a squad that is one of the smallest in the Premier League and which has been dependent on fewer players than any other so far this season. He said of 31-year-old Laursen: "He's been in London seeing a specialist. He didn't feel it during the course of the game but on Sunday afternoon he felt some soreness on the side of his knee. The scans seem to show there is something there. How long he might be out, I'm not sure. It's the other knee, his good knee. But obviously it's a worry because he's been so brilliant for us."
In Laursen's expected absence, O'Neill hopes to be able to turn to Carlos Cuellar. The Spaniard played poorly in last week's Uefa Cup defeat away to Hamburg, and then suffered a "knock" against West Ham, but it is hoped he will be able to train today and partner Curtis Davies against Arsenal. O'Neill described him as "feeling much better".
If Laursen does not play, it will be interesting to see who O'Neill hands the captaincy to. Having stripped Gareth Barry of the armband during the summer, following his outburst at the delay in his proposed move to Liverpool, O'Neill made Laursen his permanent captain. In his absence, the role has gone to Nigel Reo-Coker, who is likely to play at right-back against Arsenal, but who is far from a certain choice.
O'Neill could select Brad Friedel or Stilian Petrov but it is likely he will revert to Barry, which would cap an impressive turnaround for the midfielder who had set his heart on leaving Villa Park but who the manager still hopes to persuade to sign a new contract. Delivering Champions League football next season would go some way to convincing Barry to stay for what would be the final big contract of his career.
With that in mind, O'Neill is likely to be one of the more active managers during the transfer window even if he admits he is unsure to what extent the club's potential to buy has been hit by the credit crunch and the recession.
Significant funds have been promised by owner Randy Lerner and with the team in such a strong position, O'Neill – who has been fully backed by the American so far – will feel able to ask for more. His priority is an experienced striker, especially with the continuing concerns over John Carew's fitness and the reliance on young players, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young.