Top-four finish can happen for likely lads

As Liverpool stumble and others leap ahead of them, the possibility grows that this will finally be the season when the top four teams in the Premier League cannot be predicted with customary certainty. For all Manchester City's money and Tottenham's promise, Aston Villa under Martin O'Neill have often looked the most likely lads, which makes today's game at Arsenal a key fixture and the lessons of last season pivotal.

There are two aspects to breaking the mould, statistical and psychological, and when it mattered Villa could not manage either. Optimism was engendered in November last year after a deserved 2-0 win at Arsenal, beginning a long unbeaten run that propelled them into third place in early February. Villa were the team of the moment – Fabio Capello recognising it by naming six of them in his England squad – but the moment passed with alarming speed. From sitting seven points clear of the fifth-placed team (Arsenal), they were unable to win a game in any competition until May and had to be content with finishing sixth and relegating Newcastle on the final day of the campaign.

O'Neill believes his key players simply ran out of steam and could not be replaced from a squad of insufficient depth. When he tried, the result was failure all round, a team full of reserves going out of the Uefa Cup in Moscow and the first team throwing away a two-goal lead at home to Stoke. But heavy summer recruitment backed by the American owner Randy Lerner (despite reluctantly losing Gareth Barry) has offered greater options and Villa will soon reach the crunch where the manager employs them.

The word "rotation" is about to be heard more often from the voluble Irishman, because it is at last an option. "Yes, there is definitely a feeling that it is a squad system now," O'Neill agreed at the club's training ground in midweek.

"Top sides rotate and generally they get it right. What I have at Villa is a squad of players who genuinely want to play every week. But there is an acceptance now, [when] even the top quality players, who would be in other sides, are sitting in the stand. I remember going to watch Manchester United v Wigan and the quality of the players sitting two rows in front of me watching the game was kind of frightening. We have not reached that yet, but I accept the point that we are gathering a bit of momentum and the rotation policy will have to come into play at some stage and it is a case of when you choose to do that."

Christmas would seem an obvious time. Arsenal, coincidentally, were the opposition on Boxing Day last year for an exciting 2-2 draw at Villa Park, after which O'Neill sent out the same players against Hull for a fortunate late win four days later. This time he can freshen up the team with greater confidence when Liverpool are the visitors on Tuesday.

It is a second critical fixture in quick succession, the omens for which are good. Whereas that win at the Emirates last season became the only one in a run of 14 games against the acknowledged big four clubs, this season the record is impeccable: 3-1 at Anfield in August, 2-1 against Chelsea in October and then the stunning 1-0 success at Old Trafford.

O'Neill acknowledges that there is a psychological value, while remaining cautious about how far it will take them: "At the start of the season everyone would have still picked the same top four. We have shown we can compete and win against these teams, but you have to do that more regularly. That applies to us, Spurs, Everton and Man City. Maybe it is because those top sides are capable of winning on a bad day. They can pull the result around and win games. We had a great win at Old Trafford, expectation rises, then if we'd lost at Sunderland people would say that we could not sustain it. We went again against Stoke and took a chance and won the game. Last year we might not have been strong enough to do that. We have gained a wee bit of mental strength, whether we can sustain that is in the lap of the gods."

One defeat from 14 games in all competitions – in the last minute at West Ham – says those gods are smiling on Villa Park; but the next three days are crucial.

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