The malaise which hung over Villa Park last season has been well and truly lifted since the arrival of Martin O'Neill.

OK, so Aston Villa couldn't maintain the storming start to the campaign which lifted them as high as third place in mid-November. But with new recruits like John Carew and Ashley Young on board, plus the promise of further squad investment this summer, Villa's brighter is future than it has been for many years.

As Arsenal prepare for Wednesday night's trip to the Midlands, we spoke to Bill Howell of the Birmingham Evening Mail about Villa's up-and-down form, the consistently excellent Gareth Barry and why John Carew has stolen the hearts of the Villa faithful.

"Villa have had a heap of bad luck and injuries. They battered Newcastle at St. James Park, they played some of the best football Villa have played in five years but got beat 3-1. The home game against Bolton was similar, things didn't run for them even though they played really well. They've had a bad run but they played Chelsea and then three games against Manchester United and no one would relish that. They deserved something in the Cup game against United but got beaten with the last kick.

"The first part of the season went really well. Martin O'Neill played a system with two pacy wide players in Gabby Agbonlahor and Luke Moore, with Juan Pablo Angel up front. They kept an unbeaten run going but even when Villa won at Everton in November to go third we knew that the squad wasn't really there. An injury or two was always likely to leave them struggling and that was the case. Moore picked up a long-term injury and O'Neill had to change the system as a result. He couldn't go with two wide players and after nicking a point at Wigan the really bad performances started - Manchester City and Middlesbrough at home were poor. To sum up a small squad and one or two injuries saw the belief start to drop and January couldn't really come quick enough so they could get reinforcements in. When they did young players like Liam Ridgewell and Agbonlahor were finally given a rest after playing so many games."

"Gareth Barry. I would be surprised if anybody in Villa's home crowd of around 40,000 said that anyone else would be Villa's player of the season. He has been terrific. Last season it was Steven Davis and Barry and this year it's been and Agbonlahor and Barry. Agbonlahor has been the real find of the season, he's been really good and perhaps a couple of months ago he was ahead of Barry. But for pure consistency in his performances and the fact he's played in so many positions, it definitely has to be Barry now. It's great he got the call-up to the England squad too. He has nine caps now under five different managers and he's been terrific for a number of years now. I don't think there's a vendetta against him with England but the greatest problem Barry has had is Villa's poor form in the league in recent years. But this season, particularly of late with John Carew coming in, Barry has more quality around him."

"There will be at least half-a-dozen new faces in the summer, this is just the start of the rebuilding job, but for now the main acquisitions have been Carew and Ashley Young. Young scored on his debut at Newcastle and he looked really sharp in his next game. He went off the boil a bit at Reading, he missed a few chances with his head, but he's a quick player who comes alive around the penalty area. Carew scored on his home debut and he's really stolen the hearts of the supporters. He has had a bigger impact at Villa than any centre forward since Dion Dublin arrived from Coventry in 1998 and scored seven goals in his first three games.

"With a full summer behind him I really think Carew can get 20 league goals next season. That would be very welcome for the Villa fans who have been let down by a number of centre forwards in recent years. Bosko Balaban cost £6 million and offered nothing, Stan Collymore cost £8 million and only showed flashes of brilliance, Angel cost £9.5 million and is out of the side now. He scored next to nothing last season and, although the fans like him, Angel has only had one great season and that's not a good enough return. Carew is big and strong, he has a great touch and he's got a history of scoring a lot of goals soon after joining a club. It's happened at Villa now and the key will be to keep it going. There is real hope about Carew though, he looks very happy and he looks like the real deal."

"Villa are without Shaun Maloney and that will probably mean a recall for Agbonlahor on the right flank in a 4-4-2. O'Neill will probably keep Carew and Young up front with Barry, Gavin McCann and Stilian Petrov in midfield with Agbonlahor. Martin Laursen is out injured again so Gary Cahill is likely to play at centre half alongside Olof Mellberg with Wilfred Bouma and Bardsley as the full backs. Moore is fit and scoring goals in the reserves so it's between him and Angel for a place on the bench. Villa played extremely well at home to Chelsea on January 2 because they decided to get at them. McCann was niggly, he was getting stuck in and he will be a pivotal figure on Wednesday night. If he leads the team like that again and Villa get some good early balls through to Carew then Villa have a chance of beating Arsenal."

"Well, they are the best side to watch without a shadow of doubt. I've seen a lot of United this season, Chelsea I saw home and away and they didn't impress me on either occasion. Arsenal are superb, they are a brilliant side to watch, it's small passes, pass and move all over the pitch. Unfortunately they don't possess a killer instinct at the moment, they want to pass it right through the penalty area and don't really have someone who will get the ball 25 yards out and have a shot. Villa's 1-1 draw on the opening day of the season at Emirates Stadium was tremendous - the stadium, the atmosphere, the facilities, everything. villa were so regimented and even took the lead with a set piece. Then for 30 minutes no one knew how Arsenal didn't score two or three. It was incessant pressure and it finally told when Gilberto equalised. They are the best footballing side by some distance but they haven't got that genuine centre forward. If they get one then there is no reason why Arsenal can't win the title next season."

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13 Mar 2007