Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Next For Aston Villa? Can Martin O'Neill Improve On 6th Place?

Despite Aston Villa finishing sixth, and going for almost two months without a win. This season was a massively successful one for Midland team and their manager, Martin O'Neill.

Launching an assault on fourth place with one of the smallest squads in the EPL is not an easy thing to do, and for almost three quarters of the season, Aston Villa made that position their own.

Unfortunately an incredibly early start to the season eventually caught up on them and in February, Villa lurched out of the Champions League positions.

Aston Villa's season kicked off in July. Just when most teams two or three weeks into their pre-season preparations for the coming season, Villa were in their eighth. They took on Odense in the preliminary rounds of the (thankfully) extinct Inter-toto Cup. The most ridiculously named cup in the world.

A full month later, after two qualifying rounds for the UEFA Cup (also extinct) they played their first game of the new EPL season, against Manchester City and Gabriel Agbonlahor announced that he would be one of the season's best players by bagging a hat-trick.

Villa had only lost three league games before the Ide's of March came on the horizon and their March curse hit with a vengeance.

You see, under Martin O'Neill, Aston Villa have never won a match in March. and this season would be no different. Players who had been playing with abandon now looked like they were running in treacle as tiredness kicked in.

And right as Villa were beginning to wilt, Arsenal, their main rivals for fourth, began to welcome back their injured star players.

The strain eventually became too much and Villa dropped to sixth behind both Arsenal and Everton.

Despite this poor end to the season, Villa still finished in Europe and had their two best players of the season finish as winner and runner-up in the PFA Young Player of the Year awards, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor respectively.

Martin O'Neill's teams are always hard working teams, and Aston Villa are no different from Celtic and Leicester. One problem that his teams always tend to have is that they are one- dimension-able and lack the nous to change their style to suit the opposition.

But why did the wheels come off? Tiredness? Undoubtedly a factor. Their style of play? Also a factor. Possibly the main reason was losing Martin Laursen in January.

The Danish defender eventually retired thanks to a chronic knee injury, but his absence gave Martin O'Neill all kinds of problems.

Laursen, one of the EPL's unsung heroes was made captain after Gareth Barry's courtship with Liverpool. He was the organizing influence in the team, the calm at their heart and the brains behind their defence. Without him in the team, they simply wilted.

Martin O'Neill will have to search high and low to find an adequate replacement to partner Cuellar in central defence. Zat Knight is not up to it at the highest level and will never be. Curtis Davies has hope, but O'Neill still needs to use him as first choice back up for the next season or two.

A player that Martin O'Neill will have a big interest in is Brede Hangeland of Fulham. One big stumbling block will be the queue of teams that will have formed at Craven Cottage seeking his services after 18 months of brilliant performances.

So O'Neill may be forced to look elsewhere for Laursen's replacement. Thomas Vermaelen of Ajax could be a target, but with Martin Jol having taken over, the Northern Irishman will have his work cut out to pry the Belgian international away from Holland.

Another player who will be very tough to replace is Gareth Barry. With only one year left on his contract, he is free to talk to any team in January. And despite Villa offering their ex-captain new terms and conditions this week, it is widely felt that Barry sees his future away from Birmingham.

Rafael Benitez has long courted Barry, and with him now in complete charge of Liverpool's transfers, he will almost definitely come back in for Barry in the summer. At a reduced fee of £10m.

Losing one influential player is bad enough, losing two would be criminal. There are certain players at any club that are kept above all others, Laursen and Barry fit into that category for Villa, and with his two most influential players gone, Martin O'Neill will have massive voids to fill.

Aston Villa do not have the budget to go out and replace these two players with their equivalents so Martin O'Neill will have to scour Europe as he hopes to replace them.

They won't have to contend with an early start next season, but they will have to contend with an increased UEFA Cup.

From next season the Europa League will be rolled out, as UEFA strive to give the lesser cup some much needed television coverage. But teams will still have to master a staggering 17 games to win the thing...

With Villa on the verge of losing their two best players and with Spurs and Manchester City not having Europe to contend with, I can see next season being a tough one at Villa Park.

Fourth place is out of the question. Villa did not have the players last season, and they won't have them next season either. With that in mind they should still be battling in the next tier of the league, from 5th to 8th.

However, with Spurs and City expected to strengthen massively, Villa may find themselves just outside the European positions next year.

twitter / WillieGannon