Sunday 15 February ~
It's been a while since Aston Villa had a week as important as this. Today they face Everton in the FA Cup, having not progressed beyond the last 16 since 1999-2000 when they reached Wembley, a run that included winning 2-1 at Goodison Park in the quarter-finals. On Wednesday CSKA Moscow visit for a UEFA Cup third round tie which offers Villa the prospect of reaching the latter stages of a European competition for the first time in more than a decade. Then next Saturday they are at home in the league to Chelsea whom they currently lead by two points. While cup runs are a thrill for the fans, getting amongst the Sky Four will have been the club's main target for this season. Martin O'Neill is clear about which game matters most to him: "The Premier League is the Holy Grail. That is where we have got momentum going and that would be pretty important to us."
O'Neill has said that he may rejig his squad with the Chelsea match in mind and he may not have a choice with Emile Heskey having aggravated an injury while playing 48 minutes for England in Seville last Wednesday. In his brisk way, O'Neill indicated that he is hopping mad that Heskey was kept on for so long: "I have spoken to the England doctor and voiced some concerns and I will speak to the manager." But he will at least be relieved that two of the six Villa players called up by England, Ashley Young and James Milner, didn't get a run out at all - Milner's inactivity being something of a puzzle given that he had recently been singled out for praise by Fabio Capello.
While managers are on tenterhooks whenever their players are on international duty, O'Neill knows that the call up of the Villa block is a sign that his team are making significant progress. The last time that the club had as many as six players in contention for the England team was the early 1980s when they were domestic and European champions in successive seasons - Peter Withe, Gordon Cowans and Tony Morley were capped; Dennis Mortimer, Kenny Swain and Gary Shaw were all included in squads without playing (a seventh player, goalkeeper Nigel Spink, was also called up a couple of years later).
History suggests that Villa are poised for a major breakthrough - no team with as many as 51 points after 25 games has finished lower than third in the Premier League. UEFA's restructuring of the Champions League from next season, with some teams from the top ranked nations being paired off in the preliminary rounds, means that reaching the group stage will be a tough task for Villa. But if they are in that position, it will mean that either Arsenal or Chelsea have missed out - and a long overdue reshaping of the top end of the Premier League could be underway. Not that neutrals would want see Villa entrenched in the top four either - it would be good to think that they too would be challenged by another interloper in 2009-10, although that may be expecting too much given the state of disorder that prevails at almost all the other clubs in the Premier League. For now, Villa are the standard bearers. Get on with it, Martin, you tetchy sod.