The Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov has challenged the club's management to demonstrate the extent of their ambitions by keeping the midfielder James Milner out of the clutches of potential suitors such as Manchester United and Manchester City.
Milner, 24, was voted the Professional Footballers' Association Young Player of the Year on Sunday night in recognition of the outstanding season he has enjoyed, particularly since he moved into a more central role. Milner's form, coupled with his versatility, has made him a strong contender to be included in Fabio Capello's England squad for this summer's World Cup.
Petrov wants the Villa manager Martin O'Neill and chairman Randy Lerner to act decisively to ensure the club do not suffer a repeat of last summer, when Gareth Barry was sold to Manchester City. Milner is in the middle of a four-year deal and is due to have talks over a new contract in the summer.
"If the club wants to go forward," Petrov said, "we need to keep our best players like any big team – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, they've tried to hold on to their best players and I hope our chairman and manager will do their best to keep our good players as well. It is very important we keep James. We have got a lot of talent at this club, which has cost a lot of money. We need to make sure they are happy and stay here.
"If we try to match his ambition, and the club show they are doing things the right way, I don't think James will go somewhere else. People say that if Manchester United coming knocking at your door it's a different question, then the manager and the player need to make a decision. He can play in any team and at that level, but we hope he will stay with us."
Villa's 1-0 victory over Birmingham on Sunday, thanks to Milner's late penalty, meant that O'Neill's side have taken 13 points from five games since a 7-1 defeat at Chelsea that appeared to have ended their chances of finishing in the top four. Petrov said comments made by Chelsea captain John Terry after that game, about Villa's tendency to tire after 60 minutes, has helped motivate the team to prove him wrong.
"People have been talking about whether we get tired but in the last few games we've shown we are getting even fitter," Petrov said. "I think John Terry's comments have made us even stronger, made us work even harder. That's what will drive us until the end. We're still in the mix. It's up to us now.
"I think the other teams are worried as well because they were probably looking behind, thinking we weren't in it. I remarked four or five weeks ago, when people were writing us off, that there would be plenty of twists and turns and that's what happened."