Martin O'Neill no sooner cited Manchester City's squad depth as one reason why he makes them favourites to finish fourth in the Premier League than Joleon Lescott – the boyhood Aston Villa fan who cost City £24m – learned that injury may have curtailed his part in the struggle for a Champions League spot.
Two scans produced contrasting results for City and Villa yesterday as they prepared to face Everton and Sunderland respectively tonight in home fixtures that could see Roberto Mancini's side overtake fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur and leave O'Neill's side within spitting distance of the top of their mini-league.
Lescott, who limped out of the warm-up before City's victory at Fulham on Sunday, discovered he has damaged his hamstring tendons. According to Mancini, the former Everton defender will be out for "four to six weeks", scarcely enhancing his prospects of a place in England's final 23 for the World Cup.
There was better news for his fellow former Holte Ender Gabriel Agbonlahor, who suffered a foot injury at Wigan Athletic last week. O'Neill revealed that the striker, who is also a fringe contender for Fabio Capello's squad, suffered no long-term damage. "If he doesn't play against Sunderland there's a possibility of his being fit for Chelsea on Saturday," the Villa manager said.
O'Neill leans towards City finishing fourth because, of the other challengers, Spurs are still in the FA Cup, as are Villa, while Liverpool have a two-leg Europa League tie with Benfica looming. "City have no distractions in terms of cup matches and only have that to go for," he said. "They also have a sizeable squad to choose from, so they're in a really decent position.
"The great thing about Tottenham is that they have the points on the board. Liverpool will obviously be disappointed they didn't get something from Manchester United, but I wouldn't rule them out. There will be a few twists to come, no mistake."
Arsenal finished fourth last May with 72 points, nine clear of fifth-placed Everton, the only club to have broken the stranglehold of the "Big Four" since Newcastle in 2003. O'Neill believes such a high total may not be necessary this time. "If you remember, Arsenal were supposedly in danger of missing out but they went on brilliant long unbeaten run," he said. "It might take fewer points because teams have been beating each other."
His own team have two points fewer than at the same stage last year but O'Neill maintains that Villa – the only club unbeaten in the Premier League in 2010 – are in better shape to negotiate the run-in. "Last March we actually had 51 points from 25 games before we lost to Chelsea in Guus Hiddink's first match. Then we went to Moscow, came back and drew at home to Stoke. We then lost to Manchester City and Tottenham. So we went through a really tough time."
This season, in which Villa have lost fewer matches than leaders Manchester United but drawn 11 of their 29 games, O'Neill admitted they have been "pretty lucky" with injuries. That said, Richard Dunne (sore Achilles) is doubtful for the visit of Sunderland. "Dunne and [James] Milner always want to play," he said. "If they say they're feeling something, you know they're definitely feeling something."
Everton may have too much to do to repeat their top-four finish of five years ago. Lescott's absence deprives the game at Manchester City of a potential flashpoint but his defection from Goodison Park to Eastlands last August gave David Moyes another opportunity to air his thesis on City's new-found riches yesterday. "City have bought players with undoubted talent who can win games and make a difference and, given time, they might have a team like Everton," the Everton manager said. Acknowledging that City possess "top talent" that he would like to have at his disposal, he added pointedly that his club coveted players with "strength of character".
"Everton were a good home for Joleon Lescott, a good fit," added Moyes. "But that's gone now. We now have players who are fitting in to Everton, like Johnny Heitinga and Sylvain Distin. It moves on."
Race for fourth: Who will get final Champions League spot?
4th place: Tottenham Hotspur
P30 W16 D7 L7 Pts 55
To play Portsmouth (H, Sat), Sunderland (A, 3 Apr), Arsenal (H, 10 Apr), Chelsea (H, 17 Apr), Manchester United (A, 25 Apr), Bolton (H, 1 May), Manchester City (A, 5 May), Burnley (A, 9 May).
How will they do it? Need to take points from tough April fixtures. Away trip to Manchester City in the final week may well become an effective Champions League play-off.
5th: Manchester City
P29 W14 D11 L4 Pts 53
To play Everton (H, tonight), Wigan (H, Sun), Burnley (A, 3 Apr), Birmingham (H, 11 Apr), Manchester United (H, 17 Apr), Arsenal (A, 24 Apr), Aston Villa (H, 1 May), Tottenham (H, 5 May), West Ham (A, 9 May).
How will they do it? Maintain unbeaten home form with six of last nine at Eastlands. Slender favourites but need to overcome injuries and loss of form.
P31 W15 D6 L10 Pts 51
To play Sunderland (H, Sun), Birmingham (A, 4 Apr), Fulham (H, 11 Apr), West Ham (H, 19 Apr), Burnley (A, 24 Apr), Chelsea (H, 1 May), Hull (A, 9 May).
How will they do it? With only Chelsea to play of the sides above them, Liverpool have favourable fixtures, but must improve away form.
7th: Aston Villa
P29 W13 D11 L5 Pts 50
To play Sunderland (H, tonight), Chelsea (A, Sat), Bolton (A, 3 Apr), Everton (H, 14 Apr), Portsmouth (A, 18 Apr), Hull (A, 21 Apr), Birmingham (H, 25 Apr), Manchester City (A, 1 May), Blackburn (H, 9 May).
How will they do it? With a busy April, building momentum will be crucial. Trip to Manchester City will be crucial.