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