O'Neill keeps steady head for heights

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The Independent Online

Martin O'Neill is becoming increasingly adept at evading questions on Aston Villa's chances of gatecrashing the established order of the Premier League but, whether he likes it or not, the Ulsterman will have to get used to dealing with it.

O'Neill must be acutely aware that he will never stand a better chance of breaking the hegemony of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool – with Rafael Benitez's malaise bursting the door wide open for the Midlands club. With victories over three of that four this term, optimism is steadily building and O'Neill's fantastic repertoire of self-deprecation will be severely tested over the remaining months of the campaign.

Villa showed intent for five months last season until they fell away spectacularly in the second half of the campaign. It was a blow-up O'Neill was expecting in the league because of his wafer-thin squad, which was simultaneously competing in the Uefa Cup.

He gambled away his chance of winning a European trophy to protect players' legs for the Premier League run-in, but it did not pay off and there was a school of thought that Villa would not get another opportunity.

But Liverpool's severe struggles are clearly not a blip and their decline represents a second chance even O'Neill could not have envisaged. There is also a depth to the Villa squad that O'Neill has yearned for since his appointment and only a little tweaking will be needed in next month's transfer window.

Gabriel Agbonlahor, the Villa forward who ended a 26-year club wait for a win at the Theatre of Dreams last weekend with the only goal, is adamant O'Neill is building a squad close to "perfection". He said yesterday: "Since the manager has been here he's been looking to create his perfect side and I think we're getting to that sort of side at the moment. He's had the goal of trying to get us in the top part of the table and as long as we keep working hard for each other there's no reason why we can't do that.

"We're not going to let this win get our heads too high. We're going to have to go to Sunderland and, hopefully, get the result we need, otherwise this 1-0 win here will have been a waste of time. We must concentrate on Tuesday."

Tonight Villa travel to Sunderland, and O'Neill will continue to remain the personification of caution, claiming it is still a case of hanging in there. "The top four sides in the country over the last four years have been the best four sides and eventually, in a 38-game season, those sides will rise up," he said. "Manchester City and Tottenham, despite the results this weekend, are very strong, too, and we will just have to try and hang on in there."

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