Brad Friedel is adamant Aston Villa’s season is not on the brink of unravelling. A tough seven days last week saw Martin O’Neill’s side go out of the FA Cup at Everton as well as lose their unbeaten 13-game run in the Premier League at home to Chelsea.
Sandwiched in between, Villa could only manage a 1-1 home draw in the first leg of their last 32 Uefa Cup match at home to a CSKA Moscow side currently in pre-season.
With O’Neill threatening to field a weakened side for the second leg on Thursday as he focuses on chasing a Champions League place for next season, there is every danger Villa’s campaign could come off the rails. But veteran goalkeeper Friedel, likely to be one of those rested for the game at the Luzhniki Stadium, is confident that will not happen.
“If you look at the game with Everton we had every chance to score the equaliser just before half-time, and then after it we were the better team,” said Friedel. “They then scored the killer third goal, so it wasn’t as if we were played off the park.
“Against Moscow we were in the ascendancy and could have come out comfortable winners. And then against Chelsea, some say could have, some say should have, some say maybe not, but we could have got a result. It’s not as if we are losing form. We are just going to have to dust ourselves off and go again. You go back to the training ground, work really hard and try to put it right in the next game. We’ve an excellent squad, with some tremendous players in the dressing room from top to bottom.”
Whatever side O’Neill fields on Thursday, they will all have to contend with the plastic pitch at the Luzhniki Stadium. It was at that ground in October 2007 that England were beaten 2-1 by Russia, a result which played a major part in then manager Steve McClaren’s side failing to reach Euro 2008. Playing down the significance of the surface, Friedel added: “It is different because you have to adjust to the pace and bounce of the ball. But it’s not something that’s so foreign you can’t cope with it. Plastic pitches nowadays are not as brutal as you might think, and as a goalkeeper you can get away with not wearing leggings as they have become that soft. I’ve one at my academy, and I tried them all out before I put one down.”
Villa captain Gareth Barry, 28 yesterday, is aware the artificial surface can pose problems, but insists no blame should be attached to it if they fail to make it through to the last 16. The midfielder said: “It is quite a difficult surface because you’re just not used to playing on it. You’re playing in moulded boots, rather than your studs which the majority of players wear. It is different, but we’ll have a day’s training beforehand and we’ll get used to it.The ball does bounce differently, but not enough to be used as an excuse.
“It rolls pretty straight. It doesn’t move and you get used to it. You’ve got to try and be experienced and not worry about it at all. You’ve just got to play your normal game.”
Villa left-back Wilfred Bouma is set to make his competitive comeback after six months out of action with a dislocated ankle. The Netherlands international has been pencilled in to play in Villa’s next reserve game with Chelsea on 2 March.
Bouma had initially been lined up to play last Monday against Arsenal’s second string but was withdrawn after his leg felt sore on the morning of the game. “Bouma should play in the next reserve game,” O’Neill said. “He should have played last week but felt a bit sore on the day of the game. He will not travel to Moscow for the Uefa Cup game with CSKA but he will do some work here.”
Carlos Cuellar and Nigel Reo-Coker will also not be part of the squad to face the Russians after recent hamstring problems. Cuellar will not be risked on the plastic pitch while Reo-Coker recently aggravated the problem in training.