When O'Neill took to informing reporters that his intention this season was to win the Premier League, not just qualify for the Champions League, it was rather assumed that he was being sarcastic. But with Villa just three points off the top of the table, the arrival of Heskey is further evidence for the club that they need not settle for fourth.
Heskey is expected to make his debut at Portsmouth, and should he inspire Villa to a victory his new club will leapfrog Chelsea and go third in the table.
It is a scenario that is breeding increasing confidence in the squad. "When you are three points off the top of the league you have put yourself in a great position, so why not," said defender Luke Young, when asked if a title challenge is a serious prospect. "If we can get to March time and still be in the same situation, then we will be thinking it is possible."
The Villa defender returns to the side after a one-match ban for accumulating five bookings, believing that having Heskey in the side will bring the best out of Gabriel Agbonlahor.
"He will give us another dimension. We might even go back to 4-4-2. It just gives us another option up front. Emile's experience will definitely help us. He is one of those unselfish players that brings people into the game and does hard work, and other people thrive on him. Even when not scoring, he is invaluable to the team."
Although the players are not too shy to ponder the possibility of a title challenge, they must be careful not to become carried away. O'Neill will be well aware that Arsenal linger just three points behind, so he will be loath to settle for a solitary point, and will surely adopt an aggressive approach tonight.
"People are waiting for us to slip up," Young said. "We have ridden our luck in a few games, where perhaps we looked as if we would only get a point and have managed to pick up all three. Every game we go into the manager makes it clear we are out there to win all three points."
Portsmouth, meanwhile, are also desperate for three points, in their case to stave off the threat of relegation. They sit just three points off the bottom of the table, and have not won at Fratton Park in the league since October. To make matters worse, they were dealt a new blow by an FA Cup defeat to Swansea.
Tony Adams has responded with the double signing of midfielder Hayden Mullins from West Ham and Pele from Porto. Mullins, 29, has agreed a three-and-half-year deal while Pele, 21, joins on loan for the rest of the season.
Striker Peter Crouch has issued a clarion call to team-mates demanding a win tonight. "Three points in the Premier League are so important," he said. "[Villa] are a formidable side, and we have got to make sure we are up for it, because we need to beat them."