Kevin MacDonald hailed the signing of Stephen Ireland last night as a "great boost" for Aston Villa, although the £8m makeweight in James Milner's £24m move to Manchester City will not be eligible for tonight's Europa League revenge mission against Rapid Vienna in the Austrian capital.
MacDonald, in temporary charge of Villa since Martin O'Neill's resignation a week last Monday, worked with Ireland during his stint as senior coach with the Republic of Ireland when Steve Staunton was manager. The midfielder will be 24 on Sunday, when Villa visit Newcastle United in the Premier League, and while Ireland has not represented his country since he was found to have lied about the death of his grandmother in order to leave the squad to visit his girlfriend in 2007, the Scot was keen to accentuate the positives in the transaction.
"James and Stephen are different kinds of players," MacDonald said. "James has strength and power all round the pitch whereas Stephen is a very gifted, inventive player, who probably links the play more. It's sad to see James go, but it's a great boost that Stephen's coming in and will be registered in time for the second leg of this tie next Thursday night." Milner has signed a five-year deal with City.
Exactly a year ago, when MacDonald's principal concern was retaining the FA Premier Reserve League South title (which Villa did), O'Neill's side lost 1-0 to Rapid in the Gerhard Hanappi Stadium. With 14 minutes of the return fixture remaining they led 2-0 and appeared to be on their way through, only for Nikica Jelavic, the Croat striker, to dump them out with an away goal. Jelavic, for whom Rangers recently had an offer spurned, again lies in wait, with four goals already this season, including two in Rapid's victory over Bulgaria's Stara Zagora in the previous round.
MacDonald, who has one of the smallest squads in the Premier League, plans to turn to his fringe players, several of whom he has worked with during his decade and a half with Villa, to keep key men fresh for the trip to Tyneside. In that respect he will follow the precedent – not always popular with Villa supporters – set by O'Neill. Most notoriously, the Northern Irishman fielded a reserve team away to CSKA Moscow in the Uefa Cup of 2008-09, in the hope of sparing the senior players who were then chasing a Champions League place. Villa went out after a 2-0 defeat. Twelve months ago, O'Neill used a clutch of reserves at home to Rapid and again paid a price.
"It's a very big game," MacDonald said, going on to make it clear that the Europa League, at least at this stage, nevertheless comes below the Premier League in the club's priorities. "Villa obviously have a big reputation in Europe, and this is a very important competition for squad players to get games and for trying to develop youngsters, so it's important to try to stay in it."
Among those likely to see first-team action this evening are Emile Heskey, Curtis Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker, Habib Beye, Nigel Reo-Coker and Nathan Delfouneso. However, Villa may not risk Gabriel Agbonlahor, Carlos Cuellar or James Collins, all of whom are approaching full fitness after missing Saturday's emphatic defeat of West Ham in MacDonald's first game at the helm.
Rapid Vienna v Aston Villa, ITV 4, 17.30-19.45