Mellberg sets sights on strong Villa finish

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The Independent Football

The central defender Olof Mellberg believes that Aston Villa have banished any lingering fears of being dragged into a relegation fight. The Sweden international is confident that Martin O'Neill's side can start eyeing a top-half finish, starting with Saturday's clash against Reading at the Madejski Stadium.

Villa moved 12 points clear of the bottom three thanks to their 1-0 victory over West Ham United last weekend - only their second win in the past 14 League games.

Mellberg said: "We are now on 32 points and I think we can start looking up the table now. That is what we have been trying to do all the time. It is only recently that we have started to come that close to the relegation positions. I don't think we had thought about it that much. But when we played West Ham we saw that we were only nine points ahead of them and a loss would have closed the gap even further so it was really an important win last weekend. Hopefully we can look up now and try to finish the season strongly."

Mellberg has been impressed with the contribution made already by the striker John Carew since his January move from Lyon in a swap deal with Milan Baros.

The Norwegian had a legitimate-looking goal disallowed on his debut at Newcastle United but went on to score the winner against Alan Curbishley's side.

Mellberg said: "John did well at Newcastle and against West Ham. He is a real handful for defenders and overall did really well. It is always important to have a good start when you are new and to show your best side straight away and John has worked hard in both games as well, which I think the fans appreciate.

"It is early doors but I think everyone can see what he can bring to the team. He is an outlet. You can vary the style of the game. When he came off in both games, we really needed to play the ball a little bit more because we didn't have the long ball as an option which can be good sometimes.

"When it's tight at the end of the games, it can give you a bit of an outlet to have that big player up front to hold the ball up for us."

O'Neill has played down speculation that the striker Chris Sutton's career could be in jeopardy because of his current eye problem.

Sutton, who is suffering from blurred vision, is due to see a specialist in the next 24 hours in the hope of being given the go-ahead for a return to training.

The 33-year-old has been sidelined since the home Premiership clash with Manchester United two days before Christmas.

But O'Neill is keen to keep an open mind on Sutton's future. The Villa manager said: "There is improvement and we were all hoping at some stage that the blurred vision would go away or disappear rapidly.

"That hasn't happened, but I think Chris wants to start doing some work on a non-contact basis to build up his fitness. He's going to see what the specialist says.

"It's a shame for him, but I wouldn't be jumping to conclusions about his season being finished or even his slightly longer-term future being in doubt. We'll wait and see."

Meanwhile, Villa have secured a long-term deal with Nike who will become the club's official sportswear partner from the 2007-2008 campaign. Under the deal Nike will supply Villa's playing and replica kit in addition to a full range of branded sportswear and accessories. The chief executive Richard Fitzgerald said: "This is a significant step forward for the club off the field. The association will help us to drive the club forward. The brand sits perfectly with the new board's vision for Aston Villa and we're looking forward to working with Nike in the future."