O'Neill hopes Villa can keep place in sun after Dubai trip

Manager relies on break to revitalise team's flagging challenge on league run-in

Martin O'Neill believes Aston Villa's players will reap the benefits of their sunshine break as they prepare for the final push for a Champions League spot. Villa have returned from a five-day trip to Dubai to start the countdown in earnest to Sunday's home Premier League meeting with Tottenham.

They have gone six games without a win in all competitions amid fears of running out of steam after playing competitive football since July via the Intertoto Cup. But Villa still hold a three-point lead over Arsenal and O'Neill is confident the trip abroad will have recharged their batteries.

The former Celtic manager said: "When the team are together for more than an overnight stay for a game, I think it is almost inevitable that the players bond and get on better.

"They are living together for a few days and I really think that experience helps the entire team. I felt it was important for us because we wanted to get prepared for this very tough run-in, mentally and physically. We have done some training and enjoyed some sun and the players now feel refreshed. It was vital to regroup, get ourselves together again and now we want to go out and win some games."

With only the Premier League left to concentrate on, Villa should be able to cope with their schedule during the final two and a half months of the campaign. O'Neill's main concern is that his players do not pick up any more injuries when they are away on international duty at the end of the month for nearly two weeks.

He said: "We are in the position, other than the international break, where we are in charge of the training and the rest and stepping up and down of the players in terms of what they do in training. That fortnight where they are away is something I am not in control of.

"You just hope and pray that the players come back, but for the rest of the time we know what we need to do between now and the end of the season."

However, the Villa captain, Martin Laursen, has suffered a delay in his attempt to return to action after his knee problem. Laursen had hoped to be back in contention for the game at Manchester United on 5 April but suffered a reaction during training.

O'Neill added: "Martin has had a bit of a setback. He was doing fine and then his knee got a bit sore and puffed up a little bit after training. Hopefully, it will only be a three or four-day setback. But any setback at this stage would be a genuine one simply because of Martin's importance to the team. Maybe his enthusiasm was too strong, he was possibly doing too much, too soon. But we will see. He may even have been ahead of schedule at one stage, so we just hope it's a minor setback at the moment."

The midfielder Steve Sidwell and defender Wilfred Bouma are making good progress after hamstring and ankle problems respectively.

O'Neill said: "Steve [Sidwell] was injured before he went out to Dubai but he is responding. He is not too far away. Wilfred [Bouma] has just had the one reserve game but he has done plenty of training now, which is very encouraging. I am not saying he is ready immediately because he has been out for a long time, but it is great to see him back."

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