Arsenal match presents Martin O'Neill with sternest test as Aston Villa manager
Despite the loss of his two most influential players Martin Laursen to injury-enforced retirement and Gareth Barry to Manchester City his side have, for a second season running, ruffled the peacock feathers of the big four. If they win at the Emirates on Sunday afternoon, they will rise to third and, impressively, complete a clean sweep of English football's elite quartet. The achievement is all the more laudable when one considers the heavy investment by Manchester City to achieve the same goal and the depth and quality of Tottenham's squad. Carlo Ancelotti, who has jousted with the best European football has had to offer in the last decade has described the intensity of Villa's play as the biggest "surprise" he has experienced since arriving in English football. O'Neill has been here before, though, as his side were unable to maintain that intensity in the second half of last season. He was left to watch as a purposeful and remorseless Arsenal took advantage of the crumbling confidence in his thin, young squad to march into the Champions League. Sunday afternoon's game will be full of reminders of last season's ultimate disappointment. Villa played the same opponents on Boxing Day last year, coming from two goals down to draw 2-2 in the last minute, thanks to Zat Knight's goal. Villa had been the better side and it looked as if their assault on Champions League qualification was going to be too strong for an inconsistent Arsenal. An impressive January only increased the growing expectation at Villa Park. In mid-February, though, O'Neill's team hit the wall. They were eliminated from the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup within a fortnight of each other and defeat against Chelsea at home initiated a nine-game winless streak that would take them through to May. Arsenal came surging back and claimed that crucial fourth place. Villa's crash and Arsenal's resurgence was reflected in the success of their two big January window signings. Emile Heskey's arrival at Villa Park from Wigan seemed to disrupt the fluidity of O'Neill's team while, in contrast, Andrei Arshavin's unpredictable and explosive interventions gave Arsenal a late-season swagger. Arshavin will be central to the action again this afternoon but the guileful Russian will find it hard to prise open one of the tightest defences in the league, a defence that O'Neill redeveloped in the summer. Richard Dunne has been one of the signings of the season just look at City's defence without him and he is now developing a strong partnership with Carlos Cuellar, a supposed target of Real Madrid. It is that strong foundation that must give O'Neill hope that his team can sustain their top-four challenge. Add to that, of course, that the likes of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young have an extra year of experience. However, if you were to isolate one player who epitomises the difference between the Villa of this season and last, it is James Milner. Much admired by Fabio Capello, the versatile midfielder has begun playing more centrally and continues to be the driving force behind his side. Humble, technical gifted, with the ability to play off both feet and a developed sense of tactical responsibility very much a player after Wenger's own heart. If Cesc Fabregas is fit this afternoon, it should be make an intriguing tussle.
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