Solano 'my best ever buy' says O'Leary

Aston Villa 3 - Norwich City 0
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The Independent Football

David O'Leary once splashed the cash like no one in Yorkshire since the pools winner that vowed to "spend, spend, spend" - signing Robbie Fowler for £13m, Seth Johnson at £7m and Michael Duberry for £5m in an outlay of nearly £100m. Aston Villa do things less vulgarly, yet the former Leeds United manager believes the £1.5m he paid for Nolberto Solano makes him "pound for pound, my best buy".

David O'Leary once splashed the cash like no one in Yorkshire since the pools winner that vowed to "spend, spend, spend" - signing Robbie Fowler for £13m, Seth Johnson at £7m and Michael Duberry for £5m in an outlay of nearly £100m. Aston Villa do things less vulgarly, yet the former Leeds United manager believes the £1.5m he paid for Nolberto Solano makes him "pound for pound, my best buy".

Solano has lived up to his reputation for touchline trickery and cunning set-pieces since arriving from Newcastle. The Peruvian is now Villa's top scorer with seven, and in their rout of a wretchedly plain Norwich City, the lightly built winger headed a goal for the second home game running. For O'Leary, it is like having a ballet dancer who doubles as a boxer.

Better still, Solano's ebullience and class have reinvigorated Lee Hendrie. After winning an England cap at 20, the midfielder attracted more scrutiny for his motoring and extra-marital scrapes. Here, however, South American invention and West Midlands industry fused to produce the 27-year-old Hendrie's most dynamic display of the O'Leary era.

For the Villa manager, the danger is that performances and results like this will reinforce the innate caution of Doug Ellis. If O'Leary can keep pulling rabbits out of the hat, as he did with the modestly priced Solano, Thomas Sorensen and Gavin McCann, surely, one can imagine the chairman opining, it vindicates his prudent approach to transfers.

O'Leary talked, a trifle unconvincingly, like a reformed shopaholic, admitting he knew the financial limitations from the start. Any additions to what he calls the Premiership's smallest squad will be loan players - Liverpool's Senegalese midfielder Salif Diao is one target - or others in the £1m to £1.5m range. Villa, he said, were not vying with the top three, or even Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Liverpool and Tottenham, but with Charlton and Birmingham.

"I'm still ambitious, but I find the expectation level difficult," O'Leary said. "People ask why I haven't bought Boumsong, Defoe or Yakubu. We haven't the money, that's why. The same people expect us to challenge for a Champions' League or Uefa Cup place. All the clubs competing for that have gone out and speculated." When he attempted to do likewise, combining his current kitty and next summer's to bid for James Beattie, the "package" proved beyond Villa.

Intriguingly, the £3m Norwich ventured on Dean Ashton was more than O'Leary has spent on any player in 18 months at Villa. The former Crewe striker had an inauspicious debut, lacking the requisite sharpness and touch as well as unwittingly diverting Liam Ridgewell's header past Robert Green. The early goal was the fillip Villa needed after their FA Cup exit at Sheffield United.

Ashton, though, appears a level-headed character, as one would expect of a Dario Gradi graduate, and realises he must work hard to bridge the chasm in quality. "I put myself under pressure to score goals," he said, "and I'm disappointed when I don't."

He came close once, shortly after Hendrie's shoot-on-sight policy had put Villa two up, when Ridgewell deflected his shot. Sorensen's agility saved the impressive defender from a bizarre reciprocation.

The Norwich manager, Nigel Worthington, argued that Ashton, 21, needs time. Yet for his guileless, one-paced team, one of four looking increasingly isolated at the bottom, a settling-in period is a luxury they cannot afford. Worthington called him "one for the future", but unless he can conjure a Solano-style bargain, that future is likely to include a rapid reacquaintance with the Championship.

Goals: Ridgewell (9) 1-0; Hendrie (27) 2-0; Solano (76) 3-0.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Delaney, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel; Solano (Davis, 83), Hendrie, Berson (Hitzlsperger, 77), Barry; Angel, Cole (L Moore, 74). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), De La Cruz.

Norwich City (4-3-2-1): Green; Edworthy, Fleming, Doherty, Drury; Francis, Mulryne (McKenzie, h-t), Brennan; Jonson, Huckerby (Crow, 88); Ashton (Jarvis, 85). Substitutes not used: Gallacher (gk), Shackell.

Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).

Man of the match: Hendrie.

Attendance: 38,172.

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