By Chris Harris
You could forgive Aston Villa fans for being caught in two minds about their team at the moment. Four straight wins have propelled Villa into the top six but, equally, their eye-catching form is increasing the clamour for Martin O'Neill to succeed Steve McClaren as England manager. That's the last thing Villa's fans, players and chairman would want.
O'Neill has certainly brought the good times and the crowds back to Villa Park, transforming a rather dour mid-table outfit into a pacy, powerful side with genuine pretensions of European football. Whether the Irishman sticks around long enough to realise that ambition remains to be seen. Fortunately for Villa fans, O'Neill's public utterings have been unequivocal - he is committed to his current job.
We spoke to Bill Howell of the Birmingham Evening Mail ahead of Arsenal's visit to Villa Park on Saturday. Read on for an insight into Villa's excellent run, the incredible popularity of O'Neill, the weaknesses which need addressing and Villa's long wait for a home win over Arsenal.
THE STORY SO FAR
"Villa are in fine form, they've won four games in a row for the first time since April 2000. Spirits are extremely high, there's momentum, there are goals in the team, I think it's 20 goals in the last nine games since Manchester City kept them quiet. Villa have failed to score just twice this season. Agbonlahor has been absolutely terrific this season so spirits are high going into the Arsenal game but Villa are under no illusions that this is by far their biggest test. They beat Chelsea at Villa Park and deservedly so but Liverpool on the opening day was a big lesson for them and Manchester United were in a different class, so they are expecting something similar on Saturday. It has been a long time since they beat Arsenal, December 1998, but Martin O'Neill doesn't read anything into those statistics because this is a new game, a new team with new players. But you can't fail as a Villa fan to realise that it has been so long since they gave Arsenal a game."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"The fans love O'Neill to death, the players really respect him. He's got that winning mentality about him and there's no secret as to why he's a good manager, he's a very good communicator not only with the players but with the fans and the press. He works extremely hard, he doesn't miss a reserve game at home or away, he has a terrific scouting system in place and everything is down to the minutest detail. They watch videos at length, they sit the players down and go through all the statistics. It didn't help him that the chairman said he wouldn't stand in his way if England come calling, that took a lot of focus away from his work at Villa and presented O'Neill on the national stage. He has spoken at length about his total commitment to Villa but I am of the firm belief that the FA have to be looking at O'Neill if they want the best man for the job. I think a lot of people at Villa fear that is going to be the case, that regardless of O'Neill's commitment, the FA must be looking in his direction."
"We haven't seen Curtis Davies, he's played one Carling Cup game and a few very brief sub appearances. He called himself a 'pub player' after his debut in the League Cup against Leicester and it will be next season when he plays because there are big doubts over the future of Olof Mellberg with clubs in Italy looking at him on a free transfer. That would be a huge loss for the club. Marlon Harewood has been a big disappointment, he's not had too many chances and scored his first league goal last night, but he has had time to make an impact and has been poor. He must do better and hopefully with that goal behind him now he will have the confidence to do that. Nigel Reo-Coker started off like a train and then his performances levelled out, but he is really strong. Arsenal won't have to face him because he's suspended. O'Neill didn't spend a lot of money in terms of the teams Villa are competing against."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"It was slightly disappointing summer because Villa were linked to a lot of names but still didn't manage to buy a right back, which is a problem to them. Mellberg has played there and it has been a problem at times. They are short of something down the left, O'Neill only has one left back at the club and he's not an attacking one. They need more options. Villa have been linked to a number of big-name strikers - Crouch, Defoe, Robbie Keane - for a number of months now, and I think that's an area he would love to improve.
"Their squad isn't the biggest, which means that if suspensions and injuries pile up near to the extent they did last year then Villa will struggle. They went on a run last year from November to April which was woeful, wins were few and far between, they had to borrow a keeper at one point, and if those things happen again they will struggle. They are not good enough to make a couple of changes and still see off teams. Middlesbrough were the better side in the first half last Saturday, Blackburn were the better side for 40 minutes on Wednesday night, but Villa are having a little bit of luck, a few decisions are going their way. O'Neill has said that they know they are capable of being beaten and when that happens confidence will take a battering."
"O'Neill won't change his tactics. Villa have a settled side, they have started the same XI for four straight games now. He has to bring in Craig Gardner on the right of midfield in place of the suspended Reo-Coker, with Petrov and Barry in the middle and Ashley Young on the left. Against teams like Derby, Villa tend to have a three-man front line with Young, Carew and Agbonlahor, but against Arsenal Young will play as a more genuine left-sided midfielder, tracking back more. The defence have played really well in this run, Laursen especially at centre half. The midfield has been pretty good, Barry has been outstanding and is back in the form which got him into the England side. Petrov, after an age, 18 months of being average, is waking up to what the Premier League is all about. Gardner will add a bit of beef on the right side. Young, when he gets the ball, will run at Arsenal, he's not scared to take players on and that's lovely to see. Carew is finding his confidence, he's a big powerful lad and will cause problems, and Agbonlahor has been the find of the season by a country mile."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"Villa have an awful lot of confidence but what they don't have is the quality that Arsenal have, nobody has apart from Manchester United. Arsenal are a phenomenal, free-flowing, beautiful side to watch, but they were like that about four years ago when Villa were well beaten at Highbury. Everyone was cooing about this wonderful Arsenal side who after two months were playing some magnificent football, but come the New Year things started to turn. Whether or not they can keep it up this time remains to be seen."