Martin O'Neill has urged Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor to embrace an opportunity to impress the new England manager, Fabio Capello, in today's FA Cup third-round tie at home to Manchester United.
The Italian, who is starting work two days ahead of schedule, will check on the duo's progress at the heart of a side that, over the Christmas programme, briefly went sixth in the Premier League table. Young and Agbonlahor thus have a chance to stake claims for places in the friendly against Switzerland at Wembley on 6 February. O'Neill said he hoped today would be the first of many Villa Park visits by Capello.
"I would be delighted if he is taking notice of some of our younger players," O'Neill said. "I have no intention of telling him who he should be looking at but I'm hoping he will see something that forces him to come back.
"Ashley has already been in the [England] squad and Gabby is playing brilliantly. He has been absolutely terrific. I knew this second-season syndrome business would not affect him through lack of effort and it's great to see that his game is improving all the time.
"He [Capello] will get an opportunity here to see everybody, although I suppose United will have some players he will want to watch as well."
The tie brings the clubs together in the FA Cup for the fourth time in seven easons and may see the two young Villa fliers in opposition to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese winger who is only a few months older than them, at nearly 23.
"I'm not sure there's anyone in the world playing better than Ronaldo at the moment," O'Neill said. "If he is someone you're trying to emulate, it's not a bad role model."
Agbonlahor opened the scoring against United before Villa were emphatically beaten 11 weeks ago in a Premier League game in which they had their goalkeeper, Scott Carson, and the midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker sent off.
Villa have recovered since and they built on their thrilling 4-4 Boxing Day draw at Chelsea by winning 2-1 at Wigan three days later. For the winner, fed by Young's run and cross, Agbonlahor headed his seventh goal of the season. That victory was followed by a 2-1 home win over Tottenham Hotspur which added volume to calls for Young and Agbonlahor to take their places in an England squad shamed by failure to reach the 2008 European Championship.
For Carson and Gareth Barry, the challenge will be to remain in the England picture. Amidst the excitement generated by Capello's presence, the latter offered a word of caution.
"It doesn't make a difference to me whether the England manager is there but for a young player, it can put different pressures on you," he said. "Gabby's name has been mentioned and I'm not sure that's a good thing for him. It can get inside your head. I experienced it in my younger days and it's a distraction that's probably not good for the club before such a big game.
"Gabby will be aware of it because there has been a bit of talk in the dressing room. But his character means he's not really one to worry too much, so I hope he can deal with it."
Barry, who has been highly impressive in O'Neill's midfield, added: "I always have options sideways and up front. It's one of the reasons the fans are coming to watch us. They are keen for us to get the ball to Ashley Young because he gets them off their seats. He's playing out of his skin at the moment."
Villa, who will give the striker John Carew a late test on the knee injury that forced him off at Wigan, will be aiming to reverse a shocking record against United. Barry played the last time Villa beat them in a 1999 League Cup tie in which Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a weakened team and Villa have suffered 12 successive defeats at their hands since a 1-1 Premiership draw at Old Trafford in October 2002.
They have not recorded what might be regarded as a meaningful victory over United since August 1995, a few weeks before Wayne Rooney's 10th birthday, and have not beaten them in the FA Cup since the 1957 final. O'Neill, however, is undaunted by such facts.
"I don't think the players will be concerned by the record," he said. "It's something for discussion before and after the game but I'd be genuinely surprised if it's in their minds during it.
"One of the simpler reasons for our record not being good is that United are very good. Villa Park is like a second home to them because of all the semi-finals they have played here but we are miles better than when they knocked us out last year. We will go in with a positive attitude born from the way we are playing. It's very pleasing to see the crowd excited by the players playing with such freedom but things can change just like that, so I'm loathe to say this is the dawning of a new era."
O'Neill, thankful for the good fortune that has made six players ever-present this season, hopes to strengthen his squad in the transfer window and agree a new deal with defender Martin Laursen, who scored the winning goal against Spurs.
Happy hunting ground: Why recent results point to a United victory at Villa Park today
* Sir Alex Ferguson's record at Villa Park
P34 W20 D8 L6 F49 A31
Ferguson has not lost a match at Villa Park since a League Cup tie, 3-0, on 13 October 1999. Below are United's results there since.
14/5/00 Aston Villa (PL) Won 1-0
26/12/00 Villa (PL) Won 1-0
26/8/01 Villa (PL) Drew 1-1
6/1/02 Villa (FA Cup 3rd) Won 3-2
23/2/02 Villa (PL) Won 1-0
15/3/03 Villa (PL) Won 1-0
4/1/04 Villa (FA Cup 3rd) Won 2-1
3/4/04 Arsenal (FA Cup sf) Won 1-0
15/5/04 Villa (PL) Won 2-0
28/12/04 Villa (PL) Won 1-0
17/12/05 Villa (PL) Won 2-0
23/12/06 Villa (PL) Won 3-0
14/4/07 Watford (FA Cup sf) Won 4-1
20/10/07 Villa (PL) Won 4-1
* Martin O'Neill's record against Manchester United
P13 W2 D3 L8 F13 A29
For Leicester City
27/11/96 (LC 4th rd) Won 2-0
30/11/96 (PL) Lost 3-1
3/5/97 (PL) Drew 2-2
23/8/97 (PL) Drew 0-0
31/1/98 (PL) Won 1-0
15/8/98 (PL) Drew 2-2
16/1/99 (PL) Lost 6-2
6/11/99 (PL) Lost 2-0
18/3/00 (PL) Lost 2-0
For Aston Villa
23/12/06 (PL) Lost 3-0
7/1/07 (FA Cup 3rd rd) Lost 2-1
13/1/07 (PL) Lost 3-1
20/10/07 (PL) Lost 4-1Reuse content