O'Neill plans to rotate squad for tough run-in

Villa manager concedes need to reshuffle team for challenges on two fronts
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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill intends to make full use of his squad to help Aston Villa through their current demanding schedule of five games in 15 days.

Villa are pushing for a Champions League spot and, having been beaten in the Carling Cup final, are now through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup where they will meet Chelsea.

O'Neill has tended to rely mainly on the same core group of players as Villa look to stay in contention with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool for a top-four spot in the Premier League. But he concedes he will have to make changes for the battles ahead as Villa prepare for tonight's trip to Wigan Athletic.

O'Neill said: "We've had a pretty hectic schedule. We've been going non-stop since mid-January and by next weekend will have played 16 games in 66 days – a match every four days.

"We got through to the Carling Cup final, we are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and, when you're having a decent stab at the FA Cup, you are going to have postponements and we're fitting games in at the moment. I would prefer that to not being involved at all. Having said that, it is the utilisation of the squad now from here on in that I'm hoping will sort things out.

"It will be a busy spell for us ahead. I know that and we have to be up for the task. It's all about recovery in between games and that is the most important element of it all. But the main point over the next few weeks, with games coming thick and fast, and a semi-final to prepare for, is I will be very surprised indeed if we don't have to make a number of changes in the team."

O'Neill believes the race for the top-four position – and indeed the league title – is wide open this season. He said: "You look at this season and the number of games the top sides have lost this year – and they would all have been surprised at that.

"I think it has made for a more exciting race, not just for the championship itself but also the race for fourth place. There will be points dropped when teams play each other but also other points will be dropped because it is the nature of this season. In terms of fourth place, Tottenham have got points on the board and at this stage of the season that is important. Manchester City are still very strong and very much in contention and, despite the fact Liverpool got beaten by Wigan last week, they cannot be written off and have the capabilities to win games."

O'Neill insists Wigan have to be taken seriously despite their inconsistent results, emphasised last week when they defeated Liverpool but were then heavily beaten at Bolton. He said: "They've had a strange season. At times they have played brilliantly in matches and then they've had some other indifferent performances.

"It has been topsy turvy for them this year but the fact they defeated us, Chelsea and Liverpool shows it is a game to be taken very seriously."

Villa's leading scorer, Gabriel Agbonlahor, could return to the starting line-up at Wigan. Agbonlahor missed the FA Cup quarter-final win at Reading eight days ago through illness and was only named among the substitutes for the weekend draw at Stoke City. But the 14-goal forward is now back to full fitness and may dislodge either John Carew or former Wigan striker Emile Heskey as Villa look to maintain their 2010 unbeaten league record.

The Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, claims his players have already got Saturday's crushing loss to Bolton out of their system. Martinez's side produced one of their best performances of the season to beat Liverpool last Monday but then slumped 4-0 at the Reebok Stadium.

Such inconsistency has been the story of Wigan's campaign but Martinez has no doubt they will bounce back from this latest setback.

The Spaniard said: "It has happened the whole campaign and it is important we learn from it. But whenever we have a disappointment we get together and we get stronger as a whole – that is the reaction we need tomorrow. In some areas we didn't cope with the disappointment of certain decisions or the goals we conceded. But I am pleased with the way everybody is getting ready for the game tomorrow. That is the way we have to be at this stage of the season.

"It was an outstanding performance against Liverpool – that is what we are capable of and we have to make sure we get that on a regular basis. To do that you need to get ready for the next game."