Martin O'Neill comes over all coy when he is asked whether Aston Villa have what it takes to push for the Premier League title. Results indicate that they do – and the fixture list suggests the evidence could soon be too strong for him to disarm with a shrug and a smile those who pose the question.
Villa's victory proved they can grind out results when not at their best. If that is a trait of champions, so is the ability to beat your closest rivals. Having vanquished Chelsea and Manchester United, Villa visit Arsenal and have the opportunity to complete a double over Liverpool before the new year. Two more wins, maintaining their 100 per cent record in December, and no amount of false modesty from the manager will disguise their potential.
O'Neill accepted that Villa would "go into those games with confidence" but laughed off an inquiry about finishing in the first four, or even top. "The four teams who have been up there, apart from when Everton broke in, have done it because they're the best in the country," he said. "Their Champions League records would suggest they're also among the best in Europe. Tottenham and Manchester City are much stronger than they were, too."
Yet there is reason to believe Villa are better equipped to maintain a challenge. The early exit from Europe means no energy-sapping midweek hauls to Moscow. And even if the Carling Cup semi-finalists head on an FA Cup run, O'Neill has the numbers and options he did not have a year ago. When, for instance, Emile Heskey suffered a groin injury, Villa were able to send on a £7m striker, John Carew, who responded by heading the goal, from Ashley Young's cross, although Stoke justifiably argued that a similar effort of their own, by Mamady Sidibe, was unfairly disallowed.
In midfield, O'Neill's conversion of James Milner to a central role makes ideal use of his dynamism. The most obvious improvement in the balance of the line-up, however, is in defence. Richard Dunne continues to mock Manchester City's decision to spend £22m to replace him with Joleon Lescott, while Stephen Warnock's poise contrasts sharply with the sub-standard quality of full-backs at his first club, Liverpool.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Cuellar, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Petrov, Milner, Downing (Sidwell, 81); Heskey (Carew, 23), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Delph, Reo-Coker, Beye, J Collins.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Wilkinson, Abdoulaye Faye, Higginbotham, D Collins; Whitehead, Diao (Fuller, 76), Whelan (Delap, 84), Etherington; Sidibe (Beattie, 84), Tuncay. Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Cort, Lawrence, Pugh.
Referee: L Probert (Gloucestershire).
Booked: Stoke: Wilkinson.
Man of the match: Milner.