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.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone