After losses to Arsenal and Liverpool over the Christmas period, there is a growing sense of déjà vu for Aston Villa fans as they enter 2010. Martin O’Neill’s side, who have looked the likeliest to unseat the big four for much of the campaign, play some of the most enterprising football in the Premier League but, as they found out last year, a good first half of the season guarantees nothing. It is all about consistency throughout.

Villa looked equally stylish at the start of the 2008/09 campaign, with Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor running riot up front, only for a horrific run of results down the home stretch to blow away their bid for Champions League qualification. Defensive lapses and barren spells in front of goal were features of Villa’s play and they had to settle for a spot in the Europa League.

Considering that Villa have spent so little money on their squad when compared to the big four and Manchester City, there is no reason to foresee them toppling the established order. Yet O’Neill has instilled confidence in his players and they continue to surpass expectations.

Questions remain, though, about their sticking power in the race for a place in next year’s Champions League. And a quick glance over last season’s results brings worrying omens. Villa collected 38 points from their first 20 games during the 2008/09 campaign, suggesting they had what it took to mix it with the other title contenders. This term, they managed a very respectable 35. So where is the problem?

It lies in the fact that the team’s fairytale adventure ended in tears last season as they ran out of steam when it mattered most. When the rut kicked in, Villa secured a measly 11 points from their final 13 league fixtures and suffered the frustration of a string of home draws against the likes of Wigan, Stoke and West Ham. That slide began in mid-February and even top class, experienced performers like Gareth Barry and Emile Heskey could not turn the tide back in Villa’s favour as Arsenal clinically clawed their way back into contention and ultimately ended up with ten more points than O’Neill’s men. Villa finished sixth but it was little consolation, as shown by their approach to the Europa League this season. Having struggled against Liverpool and Arsenal, the faltering form might have come earlier this time.
Another school of thought says that last year’s statistics – and that disastrous slump – are motivation enough to avoid a repeat. They have learned from that experience, were unlucky to lose late on against Liverpool and are stronger for going through the heartache of last season, say some pundits. Perhaps it was just part of the learning curve for a group that contains a number of young talents.

But Villa arguably now have a weaker starting line-up, with Barry’s summer exit and the sad retirement of leader Martin Laursen, than last year’s first choice eleven. The squad may be a little stronger as a whole with players returning from injury and the likes of James Milner and Richard Dunne in the form of their lives. Yet the downturn and seeming burnout that occurred in the closing months of the 2008/09 campaign must be on O’Neill’s mind after seeing the recent losses and his team’s failure to score in either game. It only takes a small dip in form to throw a season off track.
With the January transfer window now open, he may feel the need to strengthen his squad ahead of the run-in and a glance around at the options available to Liverpool and Manchester City certainly suggests Villa ought to open the chequebook. Rafael Benitez’s side look the biggest threat to Villa’s hopes, even with all the turmoil at Anfield, though Man City will be eager to make some noise too under the ambitious Roberto Mancini and they currently occupy the all-important fourth spot.
First and foremost, Villa need to arrest the current Premier League slide as soon as possible and get a string of victories under their belt, but in some respects the enforced break due to the heavy winter weather might have come at the perfect time for the club. Villa have had a chance to regroup a little, rest some weary legs and solve one or two problems that have emerged, and the League Cup semi-final first leg win away to Blackburn, although slender in margin, should give the side a boost.

If O’Neill can get his team back on track immediately, they have the weapons to chase a fourth place finish, with an adventurous, pacy attack and a resilient back line marshalled by Dunne and the ageless Brad Friedel. But the ship must be steadied and an upcoming home game against struggling West Ham provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.
All eyes are now on Villa’s response. Their results in the first half of the season indicate that they have a platform to challenge for the top four but it is never as simple as that. And the minute that doubt creeps in and the memories of last season’s collapse take hold, there is a danger that another unhappy ending could be in store for Villa supporters.


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