Ronaldo tipped to light up festivities

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The Independent Online

A "contender for player of the year" was how Martin O'Neill described Cristiano Ronaldo yesterday although Manchester United's Portuguese winger will not be the only man at Villa Park today tipped for great things. Aston Villa's manager is facing a club where he is still considered high on the list of candidates to replace United's Sir Alex Ferguson one day.

In the long-term plans that the Glazer family have drawn up for United there is little left to chance, and while they do not expect Ferguson to indicate that he will be prepared to call it a day soon, O'Neill is wellknown to the five Glazer brothers - and one Glazer sister - on the club's board. With his restorative powers in evidence, Villa havelost just one less game than United this season: today will be his chance to shine.

As the Premiership season begins its most frantic period - four games for every club in the space of 11 days - it was O'Neill who said that the pace set by the League leaders owed much to the contribution of one man. Ronaldo may not be popular with many other Premiership managers - Middlesbrough's Gareth Southgate is certainly not a fan - but he drew rare praise from O'Neill.

"When he gave that little wink [against England in the World Cup quarter-finals] everyone had the feeling he had got his club-mate Wayne Rooney sent off," O'Neill said. "You'd have felt then that he would have been a much-criticised figure. For him to emerge as one of the contenders for the player of the year has been pretty remarkable.

"Ronaldo's game has improved immensely over the last couple of seasons, he has the ability and the pace to go past defenders. He has added the ability to shoot now and to pick out team-mates."

United face Villa twice more in January in the Premiership and FA Cup but the rivalry will go even further between the Glazers and Villa's new owner, the American businessman Randy Lerner. The United owners' American football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are also due to play Lerner's Cleveland Browns this weekend in the NFL, although both those side are struggling.

After introducing Henrik Larsson to his prospective new team-mates last week, and preparing to take Giuseppe Rossi back next month after his loan spell at Newcastle, Ferguson said that he would not be selling the striker Alan Smith in the transfer window despite interest from Everton. Although the United manager is understood to remain unconvinced of the striker's readiness to play football again after he broke his left leg and dislocated an ankle 10 months ago.

"Martin O'Neill has made a big impact on the club and what I applaud him for is utilising young players," Ferguson said. "They haven't let them down. David O'Leary should take a lot of credit for first introducing these young players into the squad, and Martin is furthering that by keeping them in the team all the time. We've a fantastic record down there, not just against Villa [United have not lost to them since August 1995] but in the FA Cup semi-final ties we've played there over the years."

With Chelsea just two points behind, a defeat to United would allow the champions to go top if they win in today's 5.15pm kick-off against Wigan. John Terry is out the game with a back injury which will force Jose Mourinho to play Khalid Boulahrouz at centre-back despite the Dutchman's failure to impress.

Geremi, currently holding down the right-back position, said yesterday that he would welcome a new deal, with one year left on his contract, although Mourinho is most likely to seek out a specialist right-back in January.

Fourteen points adrift of United, Arsenal face Blackburn Rovers at home today with Arsène Wenger insistent that his team are still not out of the title race, although he admitted that he was currently "preaching in the desert" when expressing that opinion. His team are without Mathieu Flamini and Emmanuel Eboué today, Lauren has also postponed his long-awaited comeback and Thierry Henry and William Gallas are still missing.

"To be in the Champions' League is compulsory," Wenger said. "You want them [the players] to be happy to play for the club and enjoy their football. They are doing that and I am convinced. At the moment everyone says it [the Premiership] is a two-horse race and at the moment we are not in the race, but we have to try to get back into it."

Wenger's tip for 2007 had a familiar ring to it when he said that Theo Walcott's development had convinced him that the 17-year-old was ready to play for England. It was Walcott who was taken to the World Cup finals last summer as part of Sven Goran Eriksson's squad, largely on the recommendation of Wenger, but never used.

"I feel 2007 is a big year for Theo," Wenger said. "He has made big steps forward. What I like about him is in every game he is decisive, he creates chances. He has played a few games and done well, but even more in training he looks a different player to what he was six months ago.

"His power and personality in the game has improved. His determination to pass people. Before it was only with pace, but now he forces the decision and shrugs people off. I must say he will be a candidate for England now. He will play more and more for us now."

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