Martin O’Neill has described his side’s triumph at Old Trafford as proof that they are genuine contenders for the top four. Whilst most of the headlines have gone to big-spending City and free-scoring Tottenham, Villa have gone bout their business with a quiet efficiency and it appears that it is time to take their challenge seriously. They are the current occupants of fourth spot and the impressive performance against United will have made people sit up and take note.
Villa have now beaten Liverpool and Manchester United in away games as well as picking up three points against Chelsea at home. Their performances against the top sides suggest that they are more than capable of competing at the top end of the table. Last season Villa had a storming start to the season and looked a good bet to beat Arsenal to fourth spot. But in the second half of the season, the rigours of a long European campaign took their toll on the small squad and they faded badly, eventually finishing sixth, behind Everton.
This season the squad is stronger, despite losing Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen, the arrivals of Richard Dunne, James Collins and Stephen Warnock have made them a far sturdier outfit while Steward Downing’s recovery from injury gives them another dimension going forward. The squad is now big enough to cope with a long season and while Barry was the fulcrum of the team for many years; they have coped well in his absence; what an irony it would be if it was Villa who finished fourth and not City. The early exit from the Europa League is a blessing, the competition is nothing more than a drain on resources for clubs with higher ambitions and Villa will benefit from not having to play mid-week games in far-flung locations. They may not play with the fluidity of Spurs or indeed with the resolve of Manchester City, but Villa do have something about them.
In James Milner, Villa have a wonderful player to build a team around; he was promising at Leeds, developed his game at Newcastle, and now at Villa all his hard work is paying off as he is getting his rewards both for club and country. He is a player who is constantly improving and the decision to move him to the centre has been a masterstroke as his energy and drive are best utilised at the heartbeat of O’Neill’s side.
Villa’s counter-attacking style of play will always pose a threat to the more established sides who have to attack them and they have enough guile in their midfield to damage sides who may opt for a defensive approach when playing them. In addition, they provide a stern test from set-pieces and rarely concede goals; Aston Villa are a very competent unit and though they could still benefit from an out-and-out goalscorer, they are definitely serious contenders for that elusive fourth spot.