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Aston Villa better placed than this time last season to finish in top four
Published : 17 Mar 2010 13:37:00
It is a measure of Aston Villa's understated progress this season, therefore, that O'Neill has, for the most part, been able to get away with avoiding the issue. Remarkable, really, considering that his side are in a far stronger position than they were last season, when expectations exploded. True, last season Villa maintained a spot in the top five for the majority of the season - only sliding to six at the end - while they are currently seventh, but a glance at the league table this morning shows Villa just three points from the top four. Related ArticlesO'Neill hails 'extraordinary' MilnerWigan Athletic 1 Aston Villa 2Stoke 0 Aston Villa 0With 49 points, Villa are one point behind Manchester City, three behind fourth-placed Tottenham, who have 52 points, but like City they have two games in hand on Liverpool, who have 51 points, and one game over Spurs. But perhaps more important than positioning is the momentum that Villa have picked up in recent months. Last season they won just twice between the end of February and the end of the season (and even then it was against Hull and Newcastle, and both in May). They are yet to lose a match in 2010, and the prospect of two home fixtures against Wolves and Sunderland, both very winnable, means that by the time they travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea at the end of this month Villa could be inside the top four. Martin O'Neill has been keen to talk about the improvement made on the creative side of the team, with James Milner exceeding all expectations with his ability to play in virtually any position, and Ashley Young shrugging off a weak start to the season, but if Villa's 0-0 draw with Stoke last weekend showed anything it was that O'Neill's forward players, talented though they are, currently lack the Big Four ability impose themselves, and their creativity, at will. The ones imposing themselves are the defenders, and they have been doing it consistently all season. Having conceded just 22 goals this season they are statistically the best defence in the Premier League at present. The experience of Richard Dunne and James Collins has been crucial, their willingness to put their bodies in the way, too. They have made more blocks than any other side. Nor should Brad Friedel's contribution be forgotten: he has the best saves to shots ratio in the league. If there is a cloud it is that Gabby Agbonlahor was forced off against Wigan with a groin injury. The striker, Villa's leading scorer this season with 14 goals, has only just recovered from a stomach complaint so his visible frustration at having to be substituted - a call he made himself - was understandable. Agbonlahor would be a good man to have around against Wolves, having shown his aptitude in derby fixtures by scoring against Wolves and Birmingham this season, while his injury suggests that the strain that the players have been subjected to is beginning to show. 'We have kept this going for a long, long time throughout the season,' O'Neill explained. 'It's been tough on the team, really tough. We've got a very hectic period coming up and we will need every able-bodied man available,' he said. It is the biggest threat to Villa's chances of breaking into the top four this season, and brought on in part by O'Neill's reluctance to rotate his squad. It might be time to deliver on the rotation that he promised at the start of the season.