Sunday 17 August ~
The 2008-09 season is looking good for Aston Villa before they have even played a match. All the clubs who might be expected to challenge them at the top of the mini league below the big four are seemingly beset by problems. Spurs fell to a tame defeat at Middlesbrough and are in urgent need of another striker, probably two if they lose Dimitar Berbatov to Man Utd. Everton have still yet to make a signing, having lost at home to Blackburn with three defenders in midfield and a sub bench composed entirely of teenagers. Portsmouth, away to Chelsea today, have run out of spending money and may as a consequence lose their cash-conscious manager Harry Redknapp who is being strongly linked with a return to West Ham. Meanwhile, Villa's opponents today, Man City, were booed off after losing home to Danish opponents in the UEFA Cup on Thursday and may soon to have to be put up for sale if fugitive owner Thaksin Shinawatra is no longer deemed to be Fit and Proper Person to run the club.
Villa have been a model of stability over the summer even allowing for the ripples caused by the on-off of transfer of Gareth Barry to Liverpool. But that hasn't stopped the peppery Martin O'Neill from a bit of a rant today about player power and how contracts often seem to have no worth. O'Neill concedes that star players will always be the subject of transfer speculation but that "it's when mediocre players are in control that you find it's crazy". You could assume that Gareth Barry doesn't fit into the latter category given that effort Villa have made to try to keep him, but the frustrations of the three-month long haggle with Liverpool may be taking a toll.
The two clubs meet on the weekend of the transfer deadline, by which time Barry is expected to have moved on. Meanwhile, Liverpool's failure to wrap up the deal is causing a further deterioration in relations between Rafa Benitez and chief executive Rick Parry. Benitez has had to clarify reports that he was threatening to quit as Liverpool manager if they failed to land Barry by the end of the month, with Parry's refusal to pay Villa's asking price being the stumbling block. After his side's 1-0 win at Sunderland yesterday Benitez claimed to have assurances from co-owner Tom Hicks that the money is available. This would seem to be a direct challenge to Parry, one of whose roles has been to relay the owners' views to the manager. Parry and Benitez somehow maintained a working relationship after the revelation earlier in the year that the chief executive had been party to the owners' talks with Jurgen Klinsmann but Barry's arrival may now hasten Parry's departure.