Neilly There: Has Aston Villa’s time run out?

It was only weeks ago that Aston Villa were in the ascendant seat to break into the ”Big four” party and gate-crash the European giants. Every member of the team has had input into the goal tally and seven players have scored four or more.

With only nine games left in the season and tough away fixtures to come, reluctantly and perhaps unjustly, the Villains look set for a scrap for 5th place with Everton, having sacrificed their UEFA Cup campaign precisely to avoid the current slump.

The weekend’s activities saw Arsenal claw back into the final Champions League place after a resounding victory over relegation-fighting Blackburn. A 4-0 whitewash and a goal for new-boy Arshavin gave the Emirates crowd plenty to smile about and a day later that smile turned into a grin. A Tottenham victory at Villa Park pushed Arsenal level with Aston Villa on points and ahead on goal difference.

This defeat for O’Neill’s side is their 5th straight League match without a victory and the only point achieved has been against struggling Stoke City. Even this match was a huge disappointment for the Midlands side who led 2-0 before the final minutes, until Stoke hit back to pull level in the closing seconds. Defeated by CSKA Moscow 3-1 on aggregate also halted a promising cup run which was ended abruptly by the Russian side.

So what has dented a Villa team’s fantastic opportunity to secure 4th spot in the League? With Liverpool and Manchester United in their next two games, Villa must recapture the sparkling form that once gripped the nation or risk the crumbling of foundations secured with their earlier efforts. Loss of form is the obvious answer but not the only one. Here are the possible reasons behind this drop in standards:

Squad Fitness

As we hit the last nine games of the season, are Aston Villa experiencing difficulties in fitness? The Villains got off to a brilliant start winning five of their six matches and never looked back. Maintaining their blistering form enabled them to keep up the pressure on league leaders Manchester United and only a month ago were five points behind the chase. That gap has now stretched to 13 and doesn’t look like closing.

Perhaps the problem facing Villa at the moment is a lack of strong depth in the squad. With the likes of Agbonlahor, Young, Carew and Barry starting to feel the effects of an extraordinary league run, as well as cup ties, O’Neill needs players in the squad that can come in and carry the team to the finishing post. Only Heskey was captured in the recent transfer window and although the probable reason was O’Neill’s unwillingness to tamper with the squad harmony, the effects are now for all to see.

Pressure and Gabriel

The pressure of late exacted on The Villains has been phenomenal, especially towards the English stars. With Everton the last team to break the top four boundaries, Villa have been under huge pressure. Until now, that pressure appeared to have had no effect on the stability or performance of the team, but has it finally taken its toll? The final third of Premier League fixtures usually makes or breaks a team’s fortunes and the only way to perform at the top of your game is to block out all unwanted factors. Even the Villa fans have begun to burden their team with unbearable pressure.

During the defeat to Tottenham, supporters could be heard booing Gabriel Agbonlahor for his recent performances. The speed demon has netted 11 goals this season but only two since mid-December. With it, Aston Villa haven’t won since the 2-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park on 7th February. Yesterday, Martin O’Neill openly criticised the Villa fans, stunned out how the clubs top scorer has been treated of late. The partnership with Heskey was dubbed as a dream come true but so far it has yet to materialise.

Uncertainty of squad

European success or Premier League positioning. What were Villa’s aims heading into 2009? When drawn with perhaps one the toughest opponents in the last 16 of the UEFA cup, the tie should have been quite a contest. The Russian opponents of CSKA Moscow would be a serious challenge to Villa’s cup aspirations. The opening leg resulted in a 1-1 draw at Villa Park, but still there was light at the end of the tunnel. Travelling to Moscow is not the hardest task that you could potentially be given. Still, the million dollar question remained of how O’Neill would deal with the threat that CSKA provided. The answer to which, I should expect, no-one would have guessed.

The three time Russian champions took full advantage of O’Neill’s eight changes to the starting eleven and carved out an easy 2-0 victory, with it, securing progress to the last 16. A hammer blow if you were a Villa fan seated at the Luzhniki Stadium, but for O’Neill the defeat would give them the edge in the league over an Arsenal side still in the hunt for European glory. The defeat, however, had an impact on Villa’s next fixtures and although Whelan’s injury time equaliser for Stoke was hardly just, Aston Villa haven’t produced a point since.

The seasons climax

So for the remainder of the season, what is to come for Villa’s strugglers? Well first and foremost the Villains need wins to keep the heat up on the London side. As I mentioned earlier though, with the forthcoming fixtures away to both Liverpool and United, victory looks uncertain. In three weeks time when O’Neill’s side meet a resurgent Everton at Villa Park, the teams could well have switched Premier League positions. The Toffees’ are sat only four points off the pace and could well make an unforeseen appearance in the season’s late showdown. David Moyes’s side travel to the southern coast to play Pompey next Saturday, before taking on Steve Bruce’s Wigan Athletic a week later. Both are winnable games that could give them the edge on a Villa side struggling for confidence.

Arsenal are also unlikely to drop many points in the run-in to the end of the season. With the return of many first-team players and fielding one of the strongest attacking options any Premiership team has to offer, the world is at their feet. It’s a fantastic time for Arsenal to make an appearance this season, with the Champions League Quarter final draw later this week.

The battle for 4th spot in the league looks likely to go the distance but who will win the war and stay strong to pick up the pieces. There’s only way to find out.

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