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Premier League

Villa rally round Petrov in battle against cancer

Instant treatment for captain after shock of being diagnosed with acute leukaemia

Barely an hour after the football world was delighted to see a photograph, tweeted on his behalf, of Fabrice Muamba sitting up in his hospital bed smiling, it was stunned anew by the news that Stiliyan Petrov has cancer.

Aston Villa revealed that their captain was yesterday diagnosed with acute leukaemia following tests prompted by a fever the player suffered after last week's match at Arsenal, since when he had been unable to train.

The 32-year-old Bulgarian was immediately admitted to hospital in London, where he will undertake a series of blood tests to establish the exact nature of his cancer. Villa will go ahead with today's home match against Chelsea, a fixture that manager Alex McLeish said Petrov wanted them to play.

"This is the first day of his recovery," said McLeish. "The players will be gutted but hopefully galvanised for the game for their captain."

Earlier the club said: "Haematology experts confirmed the diagnosis today. We expect to learn more about Stiliyan's situation in due course. Stiliyan is cherished by many and he will get from Villa every ounce of love and support that we have to help bring this to a positive conclusion."

The probability is that Petrov has acute myeloid leukaemia [ACL]. This is so in 80 per cent of acute leukaemia cases suffered by people aged 15-39. The cancer is caused by an abnormality of the white cells in the bone marrow which affects the body's immune system and reduces its ability to fight infections.

ACL can be fatal, but 70-80 per cent of sufferers under the age of 50 achieve complete remission with the most successful treatments involving a bone marrow transplant. This requires a close genetic match and it would not be surprising if, should Petrov's immediate family be unable to provide a good match, the club does not utilise its large support base and appeal for a donor.

The main risk during treatment, which involves several bouts of chemotherapy, is infection and Petrov will have to spend periods in isolation.

Petrov joined Villa in 2006 after seven successful years as a goalscoring midfielder at Celtic where he won the Scottish Premier League title four times. Villa paid £8m for Petrov who, after a slow start, became a central figure at the club, being made captain in 2009. He has made more than 200 appearances, usually playing in a deeper midfield role than at Celtic.

Reaction was swift. Former Celtic team-mate Neil Lennon, now manager of the SPL leaders, tweeted: "Absolutely inconsolable here regarding Stiliyan. He will overcome this like all the other barriers he faced in his life. Stiliyan has the heart of a lion and as part of the Celtic family he deserves all our best wishes and support."

As with Muamba, there were many other messages of support, from team-mates and others. That, according to Geoff Thomas, the former England midfielder who has overcome chronic myeloid leukaemia to raise thousands of pounds for cancer charity, is important in aiding recovery.

"It was just like being in a dark tunnel, trying to take it all in, but the support I was getting from football was a tremendous boost. It was a tremendous lift at one of the darkest times."

Thomas, who was diagnosed in 2003, added: "My thoughts go to him and his family. I know exactly where he will be at the moment, it's something totally out of the blue. It's a case of taking all the information over the next couple of days and then deciphering everything and then getting on with putting your life in the professionals' hands.

"I think it's more aggressive than the illness I had, it's something that has to be dealt with pretty quickly and it's [a case of] going straight on to chemotherapy and getting into a routine. I'm confident that the guys will look after him and hopefully as soon as possible get him back on the football pitch."