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Opportunity Knocks


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by Pete Bosworth

This week PB is going to look back on a couple of interesting games - the impressive win over Bolton and the disappointing defeat in Hamburg - as well as looking forward to an absolutely vital Christmas period.

First of all I should apologise for missing last week's column. I was without Internet for five days thanks to a fault at the exchange. The column was going to be about a dream I had where Agbonlahor and Ashley Young took Bolton apart, and I was going to urge everyone to go down the bookies and put everything on a 4-2 Villa win with Elmander scoring first. You can imagine my frustration at not being able to share that with you. Oh well.

In reality, given our patchy home form and seeming inability to score any goals at Villa Park, the result against Bolton would have been very difficult to predict, especially after they went ahead. And yet Villa came back very, very impressively to secure a huge home win that propelled us into the top four. The swashbuckling manner of the win against an in form side seems to have really made people sit up, especially as the rest of the "big 5" failed to muster a win between them (again). I'm not entirely convinced by this 'big 5' talk to be honest, flattering as it is. The implication being that it is now the top 5 places which are interchangeable between any of five teams. I don't believe it because surely Villa couldn't win the League or finish as runners up - could they?

Still, it is nice to hear people talking about Villa in those kinds of terms, and its nice to hear Ashley Young being compared to Lionel Messi by O'Neill, with some members of the serious press actually in agreement with him; and nice to hear Fabio Capello describe James Milner as the future of English football. Milner, another of those horribly under-rated by the Holte End, is actually a very, very good footballer and now that he is settling in is really starting to look the part in the quiet unassuming way that he has. Less flash than Ashley Young maybe, but there is more to winning football matches than having a bag of tricks, something Capello seems aware of.

And so fourth placed Villa travelled to the Bundesliga's fourth ranked team, Hamburg, for the final match in the so-called 'Group of death'; the group everyone looked at with it's three former European Champions and wondered how on earth Villa would get out of it intact. As we now know of course, Villa qualified from this group very, very impressively; it is hard to imagine a more sedate stroll. Villa fielded a weakened team in one match, what amounts to a complete reserve team in two matches and STILL qualified from the group with a game in hand. Later today is the draw for the rounds of 32 and 16 and a full-strength Villa need fear no-one.

O'Neill's team selection caused some controversy but was obviously the right choice in my opinion. We have some huge, huge games coming up and this one was as O'Neill correctly pointed out, 'a dead rubber'. To have the luxury of being able to rest some players and give some others some much needed match time is an opportunity that I dont think he could have passed up. I think that like all of us, he and the players that played in Hamburg will be disappointed with the manner of their performance.

A lot has been said about how this result (and the one against Zilina) shows that Villa don't have the squad to compete, but I couldn't disagree more strongly. On Wednesday night Villa made ten changes from the team that beat Bolton so easily (eight personnel and two positional changes) and the result, as against Zilina was a performance that was completely disjointed, especially defensively. This shouldn't be a big surprise. Equally, you shouldn't be surprised if the likes of Sidwell, Cuellar, Reo-Coker, Knight, Gardner, Luke Young or Shorey (all members of the team so 'humiliated' in Hamburg) turn up for the Premiership team and perform perfectly satisfactorily (just not all at once) - as indeed all of the above have done regularly at various points over the past 18 months. Even Zat Knight, despite his tendency to have the occasional comedy moment, is surely one of the best fourth choice central defenders in the League and did nothing wrong against Hamburg at all.

This weekend Villa have another of those opportunities (thanks to Manchester United being in Japan) that have cropped up a few times this season to move into the top three. On every past occasion we have fluffed our lines pretty badly; can we expect it to be any different against West Ham?

Probably not. This game is pretty much always a draw, as it was on the last day of last season when we needed to win to give ourselves a chance of finishing fifth. While West Ham have gone backwards since then and are in such a financial mess that they will likely have to sell their prize assets next month, that is then and this is now. Villa are perfectly capable of winning of course, I just don't think they will.

On Boxing Day Villa have a truly massive game at home to Arsenal. This, more than any other, is the game where Villa can show whether or not they deserve to be considered as possible Champions League qualifiers, where we will see whether this 'big 5' talk has any merit. I'm really looking forward to it, and the game 48 hours later away to sixth placed Hull City. It is a clear opportunity to put some proper distance between us and the chasing pack and I can't wait to see if we can do it.

Its an exciting time to be a Villa fan, with things on the pitch at their best for at least ten years. Unlike then, off the pitch we now have an owner who we know will support ongoing improvement, and for me, regardless of what happens in the short term, it feels like it will only be a matter of time before Villa truly join the elite. And so, with those tidings of comfort and joy I will leave you all to have a very Merry Villa Christmas and I'll catch up with you all again in the New Year in the build up to the Gillingham game.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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absa-feking lootely spot on piece that Bozzy!

fingers crossed for this busy festive period, starting today against wet spam.

a toughie, but the sort of game we need to be looking at winning if we can really lay legitimate claim to be one of the big boys ....

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Hi Pete. Just thought i'd add my comment to your article. Lets be honest here. Although this game was viewed as a 'dead rubber' by O'Neill, if you had seen the interview with Reo-Coker just after the match had finished with Hamburg, he was obviously disappointed and embarassed. If you had also read the e-mails coming into the channel 5 studio, most Villa fans stated that our so called second string simply weren't good enough! Our second string included players worth 8million, 7million, 5million, 4.5million and 3.5million. It actually was the worst Villa performance i have seen and indeed showed which players should be pushed out of the January transfer window! The performance was totally inept, devoid of ideas and flair and we were made to look second rate by a professional Hamburg team who never got out of third gear! The reality is that our squad isn't yet good enough and thank goodness, we have again been lucky with injuries to our first team, coupled with the top four's recent inconsistencies! Ciaran.

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As ususal, a well balanced piece Peter.

Villa are still work in progress, but there is progress and it's significant. There is still much for MON to do, but with Randy's support, financial and otherwise, we are at long last being recognised as a danger to the established four.

I agree with you about Milner, he's coming along really well, his work rate is good and his skill level also seems to be improving, together with Gabby and Ash, they could be big in the England set up in years to come, especially if Capello stays on.

The Hamburg game I think has done us a favour, as it shows how much we still need to do to have a big impact, but it was also as much about not gelling very well, and I'm sure they will all be disappointed at their lack of performance and that MON will have made his points to them. If some of these guys want to make the first team, they have to take these opportunities.

Arsenal is a big game, and the cards seem to be falling for us in terms of their injuries, so now's the time to complete a double. The Hull game however, I think might be a difficult one, as they have given all the top teams a tough match, but if we could take all 6 points, I suspect it won't be just Arsenal worrying about us, as the Red Scouse might also slip and ManUre may yet regret their Japanese jaunt.

Merry Christmas to all and a very good 2009 for Aston Villa.

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Hi Pete. Just thought i'd add my comment to your article..

hi Ciaran, thanks for the comments

I'm sure the lads were disappointed with their performance, and I certainly wouldn't argue with your views on that aspect of the game, it absolutely wasn't good enough from the players concerned

However, I do feel there are mitigating circumstances - firstly the number of changes, which is really difficult, and secondly that the manager (mistakenly in my view) said before the game that he didn't care about the result. Well, he actually said he didn't care what position we finished in. While I agree with him that our group position didn't matter, I'm not sure that saying that before the game was all that wise, as the players cant have been very motivated.

I think our squad is OK. In fact, it is by far the deepest Villa squad I've ever known. It still needs work mind you, but we're getting there.

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Hi Pete, many thanks for your reply. I agree with your comments above with the exception about our squad. Its ok having more players, as long as they are good enough and thats my point really. Its fantastic that our first team are doing so well and i can finally hold my head up in a large family full of Man U supporters, but is our squad really good enough? MON has spent a lot of money on our squad and if MON stays, will the majority of the team that played against Hamburg, still be at Villa Park? I don't think so. Although you cannot argue with third place at the moment, MON has made a lot of poor signings which indeed played in the Hamburg match and i wouldn't feel at all confident if we were to get several injuries to our first team and then have to rely on our second string to pull us through for a few weeks! However, the only positive that came out of the Hamburg game was little Bannan, who has come through our fantastic youth academy and he is one squad member MON should incourage and play more when we are in control of games! Ciaran.

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