O'Leary sends Villa on mission to claim the 'ultimate scalp'

Tomorrow's third-round tie at home to Manchester United will show ambitious manager how far his improving side still have to go
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From the Champions' League semi-finals to a shock sacking by Leeds, with an ill-judged memoir and regular multi-million pound signings along the way, David O'Leary has crammed a lot into his five years as a manager. But he has yet to claim what he terms "the ultimate scalp" - a victory over Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

O'Leary's latest opportunity comes when his Aston Villa side receive the Premiership leaders in the third round of the FA Cup tomorrow. When it was pointed out yesterday that he has never got the better of Ferguson, the Irishman broke into a grin and responded with a rhetorical question: "Who has over the years?

"Not many have, and I certainly didn't. No way. But it's always a great challenge, the ultimate scalp. They don't come any bigger in British football than Manchester United. They're one of the biggest, richest clubs in the world, and Sir Alex is one of the greatest managers."

Throw in the fact that Villa lost 3-0 at Old Trafford less than a month ago - after which O'Leary was less than complimentary about his side's performance - and the casual observer might be excused for wondering why he so obviously relishes another brush with the champions.

The answer lies in their subsequent run of successes. Four League fixtures have produced 10 points and set the perennially frustrated Villa fans contemplating European qualification rather than journeys to Rotherham and Crewe. They even won their first away match in 11 months and proved, perhaps significantly in view of United's visit, that they could beat title contenders when overcoming Chelsea in the Carling Cup.

Ronny Johnsen, the former United defender, yesterday identified the 2-1 defeat of Claudio Ranieri's expensively assembled team a week before Christmas as "the turning point". Conviction appears to be coursing through the claret and blue ranks, accompanied tomorrow, O'Leary trusts, by a desire to atone for the recent capitulation at United.

"We've got to look to our good display against Chelsea," the Villa manager said. "I hope the players will use this game to make up for the game at Old Trafford. The better team won and we didn't have enough effort on that occasion. Our work-rate wasn't as good as United's. Since then it has improved immensely."

The key difference about Villa over the intervening weeks has been the ease with which goals have come. Juan Pablo Angel, a £9.5m reserve under Graham Taylor last season, has scored freely, while Darius Vassell responded to being dropped by collecting his first home goals in a year against Fulham last weekend.

"We had games where we didn't take our chances," O'Leary recalled. "I remember we beat Southampton 1-0, whereas now we're starting to win those games by two or three goals."

The form of Angel has improved strikingly. Contrary to perceptions of him as a foreign mercenary, O'Leary said he had "the height of admiration" for the Colombian's professionalism. Not only had he shrugged off an ankle injury sustained at Leeds to face Fulham 48 hours later, but he maintained his sequence of goals.

Angel has been linked with a transfer-window move to Arsenal or abroad, yet the former Leeds manager interpreted the speculation as a positive indicator rather than a worrying development. "I think Juan Pablo has the potential to be a top Premiership striker. He wants to learn and improve; he has stability, family-wise, off the pitch; and he feels that our fitness regime at the club is really kicking in and helping him."

Tomorrow, the South American will be up against Rio Ferdinand, whom O'Leary once took to Leeds for £18m, then a world record for a defender. The Villa manager did not expect his former captain to be distracted by his imminent suspension for missing a drugs test.

"As well as an exceptional player, Rio is very strong mentally. He has probably played better since this case has been going on. Knowing him, it will have made him more determined to show how good he is."

Ferdinand played the last time O'Leary took charge of a team in the FA Cup. Two years ago, Leeds went to Cardiff as League leaders only to lose 2-1 to Second Division opponents. The result had a shattering impact on morale and arguably led, within months, to O'Leary's dismissal by Peter Ridsdale.

By coincidence, Villa were playing host to Manchester United that afternoon, also in the third round of the Cup. Leading 2-0 until the final 15 minutes, they succumbed to three late goals.

Although O'Leary was elsewhere at the time - exchanging heated words with Sam Hammam, as it happened - it was suggested to him that the game typified meetings of the two clubs, with Villa performing creditably but lacking self-belief.

"I don't think we're short of confidence now. What that match showed above all is that United are a tremendous side. I believe [Ruud] van Nistelrooy scored two of their goals that day. If anything he is an even better player now. I couldn't separate him and Thierry Henry. I'd be only too pleased to have either. Or both. That would be even nicer."

It would also be expensive. "So forget about me, then," quipped O'Leary, a thinly veiled reference to Villa's reputation as modest spenders under Doug Ellis's chairmanship. Of the 11 that finished against Fulham, however, seven were home-grown. It is to a mixture of judicious buying and nurturing youthful talent - of which Ferguson's Manchester United have established the template - that he is looking in the long run.

In the short term, that first win over the manager with something of the knight about him would be a sign of genuine progress.