What's wrong with Villa?

Martin O'Neill's team have gone off the boil, a long season and small squad exposing them as Arsenal close in. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Football

When Harry Redknapp last came to Villa Park, with Portsmouth in October, a coin hurled at him from the crowd left a linesman's head pouring with blood. Redknapp returns with Tottenham Hotspur tomorrow, but Martin O'Neill fears he is the one who should be worried about restless natives. "If we don't win," the Aston Villa manager quipped, "I think the extra security might be for me."

Villa, who have been in the top four since they won at Hull City on 28 December, will be out of the Champions' League places by this evening should Arsenal, with their superior goal difference, erase a three-point deficit by defeating Blackburn Rovers. And yet a fortnight ago, when Villa received Stoke City, they were playing to move eight points clear of Arsène Wenger's side.

After seeing Stoke snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat with two goals in the dying minutes, Villa lost 2-0 at Manchester City, taking their run of Premier League, FA Cup and Uefa Cup matches without a win to six after having won eight and drawn three of the previous 11 league games. It remains the most disappointing sequence since O'Neill succeeded David O'Leary before the start of the 2006-07 campaign.

The Northern Irishman promptly took his squad on a five-day break to sun-drenched Dubai and declared yesterday that the trip had "done them the world of good". However, with games at Liverpool and Manchester United on the agenda after Spurs, O'Neill is aware that Villa must translate the feelgood factor from their Middle Eastern trip into three points against Redknapp's team if the quest for a place at Europe's top table is not to subside into anti-climax.

"This one is so, so important for us," he mused, looking ahead to a 10-match mini-season that will determine the size of his transfer budgets and the quality of players Villa will be able to tempt during the summer. "We have a lot of tough fixtures to come, but it's in our hands. Physically, we're in better shape. The little break has helped in that respect. We're hoping that the mental toughness will come with it." Tiredness has undoubtedly played a part in Villa's slide; O'Neill admitted as much after the 1-0 home defeat by Chelsea. The previous weekend he had sent out a strong side at Everton in the FA Cup, a competition which he felt was within Villa's compass this year, and saw them vanquished 3-1. Three days later, faced with the first leg of a Uefa Cup tie at home to CSKA Moscow, he again opted for a near full-strength line-up. His body language during the ensuing fixture against Chelsea – largely static, with arms folded, rather than the customary, Monty Panesar-style histrionics – suggested he realised he had made a mistake in his choice of players against CSKA.

If Villa had hit a wall, it could hardly be surprising. Last July, when other clubs were easing themselves into match-fitness by playing pre-season friendlies, they were striving to qualify for the Uefa Cup in the InterToto Cup. O'Neill, who acknowledged the possibility of burn-out affecting his players, already had the smallest squad of the five clubs vying for Champions' League spots. So when injuries kicked in – with the inspirational defender Martin Laursen being particularly missed – he was not able to take players out and allow them the time needed to recover from strains and knocks.

Gabriel Agbonlahor, who went from a fringe player to an England international in two years under the new regime, has played in all but nine minutes of Villa's time on the pitch this season, often in the draining role of lone striker. Inevitably, his dynamic standards dipped during the pre-Dubai matches, as did those of another player called up by Fabio Capello, the £9.65m winger Ashley Young, whom O'Neill has compared favourably with Lionel Messi.

Young yesterday described the draw with Stoke as a "low point, it felt like we'd lost" and accepted that "the break was needed". O'Neill concurred, conceding that the players carried "a bit of a hangover" into the Manchester City game. At half-time he told them to "stop feeling sorry for yourselves", an exhortation that drew an improvement in the second half, even if Villa could not claw back the deficit. But there has been no sudden loss of self-belief during the downturn. "I genuinely don't think that confidence has been affected," the former Celtic manager said.

Another factor in Villa's blip is their relative inactivity during the January transfer window. O'Neill signed only one player, Wigan Athletic's Emile Heskey, and though he has enjoyed a positive relationship with Villa's American owner, Randy Lerner, he was disappointed by not being able to bring in the players he targeted. In terms of the ambition and atmosphere within the club, Villa are light years ahead of where they were during the final years of Doug Ellis' stewardship. But they are not yet competing financially with their principal rivals – O'Neill stated pointedly that Arsenal's squad was "without question stronger [than Villa's]" – which may still cost them dear. The arrival of Heskey has seen them deviate from a tried and trusted 4-5-1 formation to 4-4-2, leading some observers to conclude that they are not getting the ball forward or wide as quickly as during the midwinter surge that propelled them into top-four contention. Theirs is also a style, based on the quickfire counter-attack that is better suited to playing away, which may help explain why they have won only eight of their 22 outings at Villa Park.

Nor, when it comes to vying for a top-four berth, are Villa steeped in the business of fighting on several fronts in the way Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are. They had, after all, finished 16th in O'Leary's final season and have not qualified for Europe without recourse to the InterToto in a decade.

The plus side of that, of course, is that their exit from the FA and Uefa Cups has left them with a single objective and little more than a game per week. O'Neill was not, he insisted, rubbing his hands with glee when Arsenal prevailed in the shoot-out with Roma, believing that the Gunners' victory – allied to the prospect of Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky joining Theo Walcott in returning to front-line service – was likely to "re-energise" Arsenal.

At the same time he considered that being able to focus exclusively on a top-four finish could prove "significant", especially with Arsenal involved in attritional travelling and high-intensity midweek matches. "We've some tough games coming up," O'Neill said, "but so have Arsenal."

While the psychological advantage could be with Wenger's men by tonight, O'Neill claims Villa are "prepared for when they catch us up". They first broke into the Champions' League zone by winning at Spurs in September. Now they need to beat the same opponents to make the Holte End pulsate with conviction once more. Then, perhaps, Redknapp will be struck, not by a coin, but by Villa's renewed resolve.

Views from the Holte End

*We've ran out of luck. In previous months Villa scraped victories in games we didn't deserve to win but it's dried up and uncertainty is creeping in. But it's ridiculous we're being written off. The fans know a Champions League spot is well within the side's capabilities. They'll have to scrap for every point.

Ciaran McCauley - lifelong supporter

*MON is not a tactical genius, an expert in the European transfer market or averse to playing players out of position, but I couldn't care less. He is our saviour and however he's done it, he's transformed our club.

chads - Heroes and Villains

*I saw this coming all season. We have fluked too many results without playing well. We have been riding our luck for too long.

Slaphead - Heroes and Villains

*Like MON, I'm going to start prioritising how I support Villa. Maybe – as per the team against CSKA – I just won't bother. And perhaps others are feeling that way too.

KevinGage - Heroes and Villains