The old saying is that one win can turn a season around but, in Aston Villa's case, it is one defeat in particular that seems to have transformed their fortunes. Four weeks ago, they left Old Trafford in tatters. David O'Leary's men had just been soundly beaten 4-0 by the champions and had dropped into the Premiership bottom three, while the fans were holding weekly demonstrations against the ageing chairman, Doug Ellis.
Today, as they prepare to face Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup, Aston Villa are unrecognisable. In the 28 days since the two sides last met, the club from the Midlands have gone on a five-match unbeaten run that has included a Carling Cup quarter-final victory over Chelsea as well as a 2-0 win at Blackburn, their first away success in the League in 2003.
No wonder the players are suddenly so buoyant. "With the form we are in now, there is no one we really fear," says Darius Vassell, who finally scored his first two goals of the season on Boxing Day against Fulham. "It's a great time to face United because we are all confident. We all know the way we want to work and hopefully we'll be able to use that to good effect against them. They are going to be tough to break down, but I believe we can win the game."
Such talk would have been unthinkable back in early December, but something has happened at Villa Park over the past month. The club's young German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger cannot put his finger on exactly what has changed, but says that he has noticed a new demeanour in the way the team approach their matches. "I do not know why it has turned around so much," he says, "but now we go into matches with more confidence. Looking back, it seems to me that the Chelsea result made people within the club believe that we are a good team. There have been other good results and now we have more belief. Perhaps the Chelsea result was the turning point for us."
It says everything about how tight the Premiership is below the untouchable top three that Aston Villa's good run has seen them move from 18th to 10th. One minute the club were heading for the Nationwide, the next they are targeting a European place. "We know that we have got good enough players to be up there," Hitzlsperger says, "but we have to prove it every week from now on. We don't want to be looking downwards again, so we must make sure we stay focused."
He is right on that front. Villa need only think back to the third round of the FA Cup two seasons ago to know that any lapse in concentration will be punished by Manchester United. In January 2001, Villa led 2-0 before switching off and eventually succumbing 3-2. "If you are not on your game for the whole 90 minutes," says Hitzlsperger, who was a reserve-team player at the time of the 2001 defeat, "then they will punish you.
"We have played United in the Premiership and they battered us 4-0, so we already know what a great side they are. Manchester United showed us how well they can play. But when we went there, we were not as confident as we are now. We are a different team these days."
Hitzlsperger's views are echoed by all his team-mates. Peter Whittingham, the home-grown left winger who has proved himself to be O'Leary's best find of the season so far, is another one of the players to have come of age since the Old Trafford débâcle. "We know we didn't do ourselves or the fans justice up there," the 19-year-old says. "We didn't perform, but I hope we can give our supporters something to cheer about this time. We're desperate to do well as we all feel that this is a great opportunity to make up for the game at their place last month."
Revenge may be important, but it is not the only aim for Vassell. Having just rediscovered his scoring touch, the England international is inter-ested only in netting more goals. "It was a real relief to get a couple of goals against Fulham," he says, "and now I just hope I can keep going."
Vassell's striking partner, Juan Pablo Angel, is confident Villa have now got two in-form forwards. "Finally," says the Colombian, who had two tricky seasons before finding his feet this campaign, "we are starting to fire on all cylinders. It's great for the club, but it is also a reward for the individuals who have worked hard.
"I know that I had to dig deep to get on track, and Darius has had to do the same. He was doing everything right during matches. All he needed was a goal."
How he, and in particular a resurgent Villa, could do with another this afternoon.
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