By Chris Harris
It's been a while since Aston Villa rubbed shoulders with the big boys but the 1982 European Cup winners are finally making a bold bid for Champions League football.
With pace, power and defensive discipline, Martin O'Neill's side have all the ingredients to gatecrash the annual 'Big Four' party and they proved their credentials with a richly-deserved win at Emirates Stadium last month.
If Villa complete a 'double' when the teams reconvene at Villa Park on Boxing Day, they will open up a six-point gap on Arsène Wenger's side at the halfway stage of the Premier League season. On current form, you wouldn't bet against it.
We asked Bill Howell of the Birmingham Evening Mail for a Villa perspective ahead of the Boxing Day clash. Read on for his views on the importance of O'Neill, the outstanding form of Ashley Young and the huge potential at Villa Park.
THE EMIRATES EFFECT
"It was a really tremendous performance at Emirates Stadium and one that few saw coming to be honest. Villa had been hit with an injury to John Carew leading up to that game which led to a change in formation with just Gabby Agbonlahor up front on his own. I think their form leading up to that game had been poor and they had been beaten at home by Middlesbrough. Few gave them any chance of breaking what was an incredible winless run at Arsenal of 15 years I believe. Of course they went there and played tremendously well and I don’t think anybody in the stadium could say they didn’t deserve the win.
"It gave them new belief and the new formation allowed them to kick on and they’re still ahead of Arsenal and we’re talking halfway through the season. Villa have not been in the top three at this stage for 10 years and yet here they are after a win away at West Ham. That is a tremendous achievement."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"I can see why Martin O’Neil described Ashley Young as ‘world class’. He has likened him to Lionel Messi, a tremendous piece of man-management, and he called him a genius after the late winner against Everton. By doing that, by bringing him to the fore and heaping all his praise on him, perhaps a lot of players would have caved under the pressure, but it has done the opposite for Young. He is a phenomenal player and he has recently been linked to Real Madrid so that sort of praise has had the desired effect.
"O'Neil has been giving similar praise to Agbonlahor for three seasons now and his transformation has been similar. It is not week-in week-out and I think some people might say his recent performance against Bolton was a rare really good home performance. Against Man City on the opening day he scored a hat-trick but these are young players and they are going to have poor performances from time to time but those two are now the fulcrum of this side. Rarely a week goes by that Martin O’Neil isn’t putting them on the back pages."
"With their counter-attacking pace, Villa are set up to win away games. They have now got a very solid central midfield three in Gareth Barry, Steven Sidwell and Stylian Petrov. Then you have the two wide players in James Milner and Young with the former doing an awful lot of work. Young is the one that is allowed to roam a bit to create problems when he can. From set-pieces they are extremely strong and Martin Laursen has been tremendous this season and last. We’re talking about a player whose career, three years ago, looked to be over."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"There is strength all round this season but it is also important not to get too carried away because of strength in depth. You look at Villa’s bench and there are only one or two players that could come in and make a difference, Nigel Reo-Coker being one. But you look and think that if they struggle in a game there is very little that can come on and make a difference. They only have two strikers at the club with any pedigree, they have got a youngster, Nathan Delfouneso, who has potential, and then there’s Marlon Harewood who has been extremely poor for some time. Whenever a chance comes his way he just seems to throw it away.
"They desperately need striking power and there is very little in terms of midfield depth. Zat Knight is somebody else who really hasn’t taken his opportunities. There is work to be done in January and if they manage to bring in the players that they want then there is every chance that they could keep up this challenege to Arsenal. It is going to require a bit of luck and a tremendous effort to take on Arsenal over the course of the season."
THE MAN IN CHARGE
"You just couldn’t underplay the importance of Martin O'Neill to Villa. His impact on the club together with the impact of [chairman] Randy Lerner, who came in at pretty much the same time, together their relationship has taken the club to a new level. There have been so many changes - some small ones, like the change of the badge, a building of a new hotel at Villa Park and the new training ground, created a new kind of love affair between the supporters and the Board.
"That started with free coaches to the league game against Chelsea and then they had a 1982 reunion for a game with Sheffield United where they gave out free scarves. It has created a feel-good factor around the place but Martin has done tremendously well. There is definitely a touch of magic to Martin and he is obviously an extremely witty man who can create back-page headlines without trying. Martin manages to combine a work ethic, he rarely misses a youth game – home or away - with the tendency to get the very best out of a group of players who, two years ago, were mid-table at best."
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
"The true potential of the club is that they can become one of the biggest names in English football. If by hook or by crook they manage to sneak into a Champions League place then the club will go through the roof. They are owned by billionaire-banker Randy Lerner, who has the financial wherewithal to take them to that next level, but so many Premier League clubs have had very rich men with short-term motives. Lerner certainly isn’t in in that bracket and I think up until the last transfer window you could have said that he hadn’t yet proved himself in the transfer market. But then he blew that out of the water in the last transfer window and we saw a whole heap of players come in. Nicky Shorey, Luke Young came in on the same day for around £9million – that was the full-back problem sorted. Carlos Cuellar came in then for £7.8million. James Milner came in for around £12million.
"The potential is there but for the moment I think the fans would be delighted if they can just finish in the top half. I honestly think that the top four is extremely difficult. I think if they can stay top five they have the chance to perhaps move on again next season. But the problem with the Premier League is that the top four always move on, year-in year-out. I know Arsenal fans would look back at the last few years and say it is not happening for them but most outsiders would look at Arsenal and see that they’re still playing some wonderful football and these short-term results will change. Nobody can look at Arsenal and not think that success is just around the corner."