Something For The Weekend (225)
There was a kind of hush which descended over Villa Park this midweek, which left me fiddling with my remote-control, thinking there was something wrong with the sound. Mind you, I hadn't got much to say myself either, shortly after Vagner Love scored and even if I'd been handed a flag, my will to wave it, would have been a bit pusillanimous, to say the least - TV cameras, or, no TV cameras.
After being out-played, if not by much, at Goodison at the weekend, it was hard not to conclude, that the Villa wheels were coming off. But gladly, my despair was premature and once Villa's defence had cancelled their snooze-button, things began to improve markedly and even before they managed to equalise, Villa made a very convincing case, that they have become a very decent side.
It seemed pretty clear that every player has improved and none more so, than Petrov, who gave a masterful midfield display, as far as I'm concerned. He was very good against Everton but with the return of Barry, his efforts were less in vain. Even Villa's defence looked a bit tighter and the lauding of Love, seemed to have been a bit premature by the end of the game, while those endless replays of his goal got right up my shonker.
Villa's whole team, including the stand-ins, looked like a pretty decent unit, which has not always been obvious, in a few European outings.
Obviously, we are all aware that Ashley is a class act but I am not sure the fans have noticed how Gabby has actually doubled his workload this season.
Not so long ago, all Gabby had to do was think about chasing every ball that was pumped in front of him, and try and get it in the net. These days, he's contributing so much more to the team, with his hold-up play, as well as his goal-scoring duties. The physical demands are now immense and his extra duties take him to positions away from goal, while his need to make many decisions he never was required to make before, really has made it a proper man's job he's taken on. By my calculations, this makes him twice the player he was. Unfortunately, his new responsibilities seem to have just blunted his goal-scoring edge a wee tad. But without doubt, his new job-description has made Villa a better team.
Okay, so I am prejudiced, when it comes to Erdington's very own.
But my opinion that Villa are looking better than they have looked for years, seems less based on prejudice, and more on comparing Villa's UEFA performance with both Spurs and Man City. Villa, on the TV evidence, looked better balanced and tactically cohesive, than their Premiership cup rivals. That is not to say that I think Villa are favourites to go through, as their trip to chilly Moscow looks very tricky indeed. But judging by the overview, things look right on track.
Key to this conclusion was the choice of Guzan over Friedel. It would have been so easy to have left him out, in favour of Villa's number one. And, to be honest, I probably would have favoured big bad Brad because he is better. Marvellous Mart, obviously thinks in terms of building Guzan up, so that when he is forced to play him, he has no worries about whether he's up for it or not. I thought his decision to play Craig Gardner was another attempt to bring the young Silhillian on by giving him responsibility, while providing a little security behind him by moving Luke Young to his favoured position on the right.
At the risk of being caught kissing his keister, I think its sensational how O'Neill has managed his resources, on so many fronts. Terrace tacticians, like myself would have gone large at every opportunity.
As ever, the Russian front looks rather tough, whether under the onion-domes of the Kremlin or under the watchful eye of Roman Abramovich, Villa's task looks daunting and every player and fan must be girding their loins, hoping to avoid the football lesson, O'Neill's team encountered at Stamford Bridge, earlier in the season. Hiddink insists there is no division in the Chelsea camp but he would say that anyway, and Villans everywhere, can only hope that the Dutchman's arrival hasn't cured them of all their apparent woes.
A Villa win would be fantastic and even a draw would provide solid evidence that Villa's progress is a little more than wishful-thinking on my part. As Villa's manager has said quite often - the Premiership is the be all and end all - and don't we know it. The UEFA cup is all fine and dandy but everyone knows that its the Champions League where the big boys are found. The CL is where the real dosh is and the CL is the only lure, players are really interested in - ask Man City.
I don't know what injury problems O'Neill might have for tomorrow's game but I suspect, if fit, James Milner will get the nod, so as to try and amuse, which ever left-back takes the place of the suspended Ashley Cole.
The prospects are mouth-watering, as the minutes tick away the hours before Villa's high-noon, and I for one will be whistling, 'Do not forsake me, oh my darlings', from breakfast time onwards, this Saturday morning.
But, I do, oh so wish, that we were still in the FA cup.
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