So-solid Carew takes giant strides towards goal of fifth place

Braced as they are for a summer fight with Liverpool over the services of Gareth Barry, Aston Villa can today use a game on the other side of Stanley Park as a major sales pitch to their highly influential captain.

Win against Everton at Goodison Park and a team who have "exhilarated" their manager, Martin O'Neill, by taking off spectacularly at the expense of the Premier League's smaller fry in the last fortnight will have gone a long way to securing the Uefa Cup qualification that may rebuff the Anfield overtures.

Barry has been one of the prime movers in resurrecting a challenge that appeared to have had the life squeezed out of it with a 4-0 defeat at Manchester United last month.

Three straight wins, with 15 goals scored and only one conceded, have trimmed the advantage that fifth-placed Everton hold over Villa from eight points (with a game in hand) to three. From nowhere, Villa are now second-top scorers in the Premier League, behind only Manchester United.

Their giant striker John Carew has been a key member of their flourishing personnel. Last Sunday at Villa Park, where average attendances for a full season are on course to be the highest for almost 60 years, Carew netted his 11th and 12th goals of this campaign, his first having come against Evertonin September.

No one is more aware than the fearsome centre-forward of European football's lure. Carew scored for Valencia (pre-Rafael Benitez) in a losing penalty shoot-out against Bayern Munich in the 2001 Champions' League final and sent a message of commiseration to John Arne Riise this week after the mother of all own goals by his fellow Norwegian in front of the Kop.

"I am very happy to have played in Europe before and it would be fantastic to have those evenings here next season," Carew said. "The opportunity is there for us and hopefully we can grab it. We were focusing on the Uefa Cup a month ago, then we let it go. But we have no reason to doubt ourselves now because the stadium was electric against Birmingham last weekend and everything is looking great. This is a six-point match, a little final, but we go into it feeling 100 per cent.

"When I was in Spain, it was Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia in the semi-finals in Europe. Now it's three English clubs. I had one season that was OK with Benitez and one really good one, and he and Martin O'Neill are completely different.

"But they are both winners and have their own ways of getting the best out of players," he added. "The most important thing is getting players to believe on the pitch. That's Martin's greatest strength and what makes a few managers really successful. If I knew how he did it, it would be easy – and it would mean more than five or six managers were doing it."

It's not only Villa's form surge that should discomfort Everton, who have taken just five points from the previous 18, including a scratchy 1-0 home win over Derby. The remaining matches after today also appear to favour the Midlanders.

While David Moyes's men wind up with a trip to Arsenal and a visit from Newcastle, Villa are at home to Wigan and away to West Ham. So, having dedicated much of their season to trying to overhaul Liverpool for fourth place, Everton now find their hold on fifth spot under very real threat from a posse of clubs, headed by today's visitors.

Villa's rise is more power to the elbow of O'Neill, who remains happy with his one-year rolling contract at a club he believes can carry on matching his ambitions.

"Aston Villa can definitely compete up there and I want to be part of it," the manager said. "It doesn't matter if you have a contract for five or 10 years – you'll still get booted if you aren't doing well. I don't want to be comfortable. I like living a bit on the edge and I'd think supporters would be much more concerned about Gareth Barry's situation than mine... it's a players' world these days and he's going to score a lot more than I will for this club."


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