Villa need to be­lieve, or they aren’t go­ing any­where

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FOOTBALL - PETER BILLS

YOU could hardly say that tough times are at the door.

They’ve spent a for­tune, splashed mil­lions on some of the bright­est tal­ents in English foot­ball. What’s more, they have de­vel­oped the strength of their squad with far more able back-up play­ers than 18 months ago.

So As­ton Villa stands sixth in the Premier League, on 35 points af­ter 20 games. They’re only two points be­hind Tot­ten­ham in that cov­eted fourth place, the last lu­cra­tive Cham­pi­ons League spot.

Liver­pool are two points be­hind Villa.

And yet, and yet... in a sense, Villa go into the New Year with so much still to prove. Not in terms of con­sis­tency – since he ar­rived, Martin O’Neill has turned the Mid­lands club into con­sis­tent op­er­a­tors.

But in terms of con­vinc­ing us that if, as seems quite likely, Liver­pool are slip­ping be­hind the rest of the front run­ners, Villa are the club des­tined to take their place.

O’Neill will be hugely dis­ap­pointed that his team has not made much more of their op­por­tu­ni­ties in the first half of the sea­son. Liver­pool have been a crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment, winning only three of 15 games at one stage. Big-spending Manch­ester City won only three of 11 games at one point, re­turn­ing a se­ries of frus­trat­ing draws. Tot­ten­ham have done rea­son­ably well but the chance was there for Villa to put real day­light be­tween them­selves and many of their ri­vals.

What nags away in the minds of the doubters is that Villa con­tinue to fail too of­ten on the big oc­ca­sion. They are ca­pa­ble of barn-storm­ing re­sults, such as their win over Manch­ester United at Old Traf­ford. But two of their most re­cent league fix­tures at the end of the old year un­der­lined the weak­ness.

For an hour, they more than held their own at The Emi­rates against a weak­ened Arse­nal side. Yet from the mo­ment Arsene Wenger in­tro­duced the be­low-fit Cesc Fabre­gas, Villa looked re­signed, like rab­bits caught in the head­lights.

A 3-0 de­feat af­ter Arse­nal hadn’t looked like scor­ing for an hour – this was hardly the stuff of chal­lengers for the Premier­ship ti­tle.

A few days later, Villa had an­other chance, at home to Liver­pool. Here was a glo­ri­ous op­por­tu­nity to in­flict se­ri­ous pain on Rafa Ben­itez’s men. Yet Villa failed again, los­ing 1-0 to Fer nando Tor­res’ 90th minute win­ner. It was yet an­other golden op­por­tu­nity squan­dered.

The great teams were al­ways so dif­fi­cult to beat be­cause they also seemed to have an in­ner be­lief, a core con­vic­tion, that they were the best and would pre­vail. Such a phi­los­o­phy un­der­pinned the power teams as­sem­bled down the years by the likes of Liver­pool and Manch­ester United.

But even un­der O’Neill and even af­ter spending mil­lions, Villa still seem de­fi­cient in that cru­cial depart­ment. Un­til they have ad­dressed and solved this crit­i­cal is­sue, it is un­likely they will take the next sig­nif­i­cant step up the Premier­ship lad­der – and stay there.

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