O'Leary warns of hard fight ahead

Bolton Wanderers 1 - Aston Villa 2
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The Independent Football

David O'Leary, the Aston Villa manager, spoke of "the league within the league". Sam Allardyce, his counterpart at Bolton Wanderers, referred to their next fixture, away to the leaders Chelsea as "a game no one will give us a chance in, and rightly so with the money they've spent and the players they have".

David O'Leary, the Aston Villa manager, spoke of "the league within the league". Sam Allardyce, his counterpart at Bolton Wanderers, referred to their next fixture, away to the leaders Chelsea as "a game no one will give us a chance in, and rightly so with the money they've spent and the players they have".

Understandable sentiments, perhaps, if these sides were just one bad result away from dropping into the bottom three. But considering both lie in the top six of the table with a third of the season now gone, their pessimism is surely exaggerated.

Not according to O'Leary.

"At the end of the 38 games, you finish where you deserve," he said. "I think in that time the top five will establish themselves in some order. I'm talking about Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle. It's no coincidence they are the ones spending the big money.

"Last year we managed to finish sixth and that was great. We're aiming for that again, but it's going to be hard. You look at the money Middlesbrough have spent and what the likes of Bolton are doing and it will be hard. We're not frightened of finishing higher - we just know how hard it will be."

His comments were echoed by Allardyce, who is far more concerned with the sides sitting just below Bolton than those above.

"Unless we start defending better and stop giving away soft goals there's no way we can remain in fourth place," Allardyce said. "Losing this game has made it hard for ourselves with the fixtures we've got coming up. Home form is crucial and we've got to find a balance between attack and the defensive requirements here."

Yet despite the understandable pragmatism, both managers can point to tangible improvement over the past couple of years. Villa remain on course to match their finish last season while Bolton continue to break new ground in the top half.

"We've got a lot of talented players here," conceded Allardyce. "It's not just Jay-Jay Okocha. Fernando Hierro was exceptional until he tired today, Henrik Pedersen's got eight goals already and Kevin Davies is one of the very best target men in the league."

This time around, of the two, Bolton may last the pace better, simply because their squad is stronger in depth than that of Villa's. With Darius Vassell, Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen all long-term casualties, O'Leary was forced to deploy Carlton Cole, Pete Whittingham and Mark Delaney in their stead, respectively a loan signing, an inexperienced midfielder and a full back playing in the centre of defence.

That said, such considerations were mere trifles on Saturday once Thomas Hitzlsperger had dispatched his stunning 88th-minute volley into the top corner to give Villa a victory they simply did not deserve. Earlier, Gavin McCann had cancelled out El Hadji Diouf's opener.

"It was an unbelievable goal," said Allardyce. "But the bottom line is that in the Premiership you can get punished for small mistakes and that was what happened to us. It would be easy to blame the defenders but I think on this occasion the attackers should have put the game beyond Villa long before the end," he said.

It was hard not to agree.

Goals: Diouf (21) 1-0; McCann (41) 1-1; Hitzlsperger (88) 1-2.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-2-3): Oakes; Hunt, Jaidi, N'Gotty, Gardner; Hierro (Campo, 81); Nolan (Vaz Te, 89), Speed; Diouf, Pedersen, Davies. Substitutes not used: Poole (gk), Cesar, Haim

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Delaney, Mellberg, Samuel; Solano (Moore, 74), McCann, Hendrie (Ridgewell, 90), Whittingham (Hitzlsperger, 63); Angel, Cole. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Davis

Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay)

Bookings: Bolton: Gardner. Aston Villa: Hendrie

Man of the match: Nolan

Attendance: 25,779

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