Something For The Weekend (236)
As the poisoned pixels paraded across my TV screen announcing the ugly news that Villa had been trounced at Fulham, I cursed Lawrenson for tipping Villa and asked myself, whether the result confirms Villa as a bad team?
Probably not, but there can't be any denying that fings ain't what they used to be.
As the Bard once said, Love is the star that looks upon tempests and is unmoved but everything has a shelf-life and even old Bill contradicted himself with his, Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, a few sonnets later.
And Arsenal went and got stuffed too.
Predictably, I looked upon Arsenal's woe more dispassionately and although their distance from winning trophies is not measured in parsecs, like Villa's, their inch is as good as any number of Villa miles. So when I watched the highlights of their deconstruction by Chelsea, I was more analytical, forgiving and understanding than my strident dismay at Villa's limp capitulation at the Cottage. Although, with the Arse making numerous chances and Villa making just a little over none, constructing parallels was not exactly easy.
Arsenal proved that being entirely dependent on young reserve defenders at the sharp end of the season, when the pressures and the opposition might be at their height, is unlikely to give you everything you need to carry yourself into the Champions League final, or give you the required consistency, when there is suddenly nothing to play for, except pride. It also proved that being unlucky, as Chelsea were against Barcelona, is a much less damaging than being very poor, which Arsenal were against Man United. It showed that ill-luck and injustice is a face-saver, where just being bad affords you know such luxury.
Villa weren't unlucky.
Like Villa, Arsenal failed to deal adequately with the loss of a key defender, when Gael Clichy was injured (considered worthy of a place in PFA team of the year 2007-08). Despite some very notable performances from 19-year-old Kieran Gibbs, heroic even, he suffered badly in the CL semi second-leg. Clichy's continued absence through a back injury, has been crucial in Arsenal's disappointing trophyless season. Just as Villa's season petered out when captain Martin Laursen got injured and O'Neill never found a replacement of equal quality but Laursen was world-class and it was never going to be easy.
Arsenal have forty-odd players and Villa have thirty-odd (or Arsenal have 30% more players than Villa) - both found they did not quite have sufficient quality in depth to complete the task they had set themselves. Something Chelsea will have to admit to as well, when they come to reckon up their season, just like the overwhelming majority of clubs.
So although there are ten points between Villa and Arsenal, they both suffered from the same thing - lack of strength in-depth and a spirit which proved more fragile than had been imagined.
Why am I comparing Arsenal with Villa? Well, its because I wondered whether there are many Arsenal fans who wish David Moyes was their manager, which some Villa fans seem to be hinting at? I don't fink so!
Steve Bruce offered a very reasonable diagnosis of Villa's problems, when he was analysing his own at Wigan, where he said that there is a mindset, which is a permanent feature of the club, that once their ambition of survival was complete, the players relaxed. He said he has tried everything in attempt to remedy this but all to no avail. O'Neill with his constant mention of not downing tools, or thinking the holidays have started, more or less said the same thing about Villa - the systemic belief that they had done enough.
Its hard to deny the truth of that - but Villa have improved.
Villa have qualified for Europe while sustaining a long run in the UEFA cup, which has proven impossible for many teams over the years, even when they have played rather fewer games than Villa. Villa have dipped their toe into the none too welcoming demands of European football and found that such a commitment can be bad for a club's health and Premiership success. Avoiding that Pyrrhic victory, marked the season and revealed O'Neill's pragmatism, bravery in the face of fan-dismay, and his realistic assessment of his squad.
It seems that even after the most positive analysis, Villa need to upgrade the quality of their squad, and somehow make a shift in the internal culture so that players don't start turning off, when the job looks done. I tend to agree with Steve Bruce, that the former is rather easier to remedy than the latter.
Even though qualifying for the Europa League is a pleasant boast to make, the prospect of a 19 game trudge around the unfashionable clubs of Europe is not exactly a thrilling prospect and looks like a competition designed as a cash-cow, rather than for football thrills, and a Moscow February doesn't look any more attractive, than it did last time round. Even though an away visit to some east European rust-belt, sure does improve your geography.
Consolation of the week was seeing Petrov get his award. He thoroughly deserves it and the joy is not just that he has been worth every vote, its also that he proved that no player should ever be written off, by premature knee-jerk terrace opinion. He always looked superb for Celtic and when he struggled after arriving at Villa, I just assumed he was just another foreigner who had dazzled elsewhere but struggled with the physical demands of the Premiership. For some of the anti-O'Neill brigade he became their favourite stick to beat him with, accompanied by the usual vile slanders, which reveal them as the shits they are.
So it is joyful to see those nasty prats proved wrong but twice as satisfying to see him get stronger and adapt himself to one of the toughest, most competitive positions on the pitch. He's just got stronger and stronger, and while adding some ferocious tackling to his game, he still can be seen to have an eye for a pass.
I have been amazed by some of his best performances.
To parrot O'Neill, he has been tremendous for Villa this season and he must take a huge amount of personal satisfaction from the immense progress he has made and the fact that the Villa fans have noticed, especially as there were plenty of rivals who have provided some rather more eye-catching contributions, over the season.
Sadly, it might mean that a majority fans, actually know a player when they see one.
The Fonze got his award for his couple of memorable goals in the UEFA cup and he should take it as encouragement to inspire him, as he enters some of the most crucial years of his football career. As he'll know, the only award worth having at any age, is a regular first-team place in a top team.
The sad news we all expected emerged when Martin Laursen announced his retirement from the game, this week. When he was fit, he was undoubtedly world-class and he gave everything, in his glorious swansong for Villa. He is a sad loss to Villa and to Danish football and there won't be a Villa fan who will not want to thank him for his contribution at Villa and wish him all the best in what ever he decides to do. Truly a very great Dane, indeed. His appearance record at club level looks very sparse and he made more appearances for Villa than any other club (85), if Wiki is anything to go by but he won 99 caps for Denmark, which offers some insight into his quality and status. Unless they can get some mad scientist to grow him a new knee in a laboratory, it looks like he won't be getting his century.
More amusing was the news that Nicky Storey promised to play through the pain, to help Villa. The only thing the fans were unsure about, was whether he meant his own pain or theirs.
In the meantime, I must wait to see whether the misery at Middlesbrough, will be theirs or ours. It seems ironic that the fate of Gareth Southgate and his club are so dependent on Villa, the club he left to win things.
The way Villa are playing, he might have reason to be rather more grateful to his old club, this time round.