After defying the critics for so long this season, Aston Villa must now dig deep and show their resolve if they are to fulfil their Champions League dream. Going out of the FA Cup, Uefa Cup and then dropping two points at home in a surprise Premier League draw to lowly Stoke has rattled them, made them fearful perhaps that a season of much promise could end in bitter disappointment.
Ambitious talk of the league title has rightly subsided in recent weeks, but victory at Manchester City tonight will keep them on track for fourth place and suggest their recent run of five games without a win is just a minor blip. Stiliyan Petrov does not think Villa have run out of steam, nor are they crumbling under the weight of expectation. Talented youngsters like Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young have scored just one goal between them in the last 12 games, a disappointment after their early-season efforts. But Petrov said: "There are 11 games to go, it is up to us. It is going to be a race to the end. If you are a footballer there is always pressure because the fans demand it. They want to win things, they want to play in the best competitions [like] the Premier League and the Champions League.
"We have a big two-and-a-half months ahead and we need to do it because it will be a great achievement for the club." Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, has been criticised for sacrificing the Uefa Cup to pursue the bigger prize. He sent out a weakened team against CSKA Moscow last week and paid the price with defeat at the last-32 stage. Petrov added: "Everyone wants to play and fight for his place. They want to play and show they deserve to be here. Unfortunately the result didn't go their way, but we believe in each other. You judge people at the end of the season."
An eighth successive league away win this season at City will lift spirits, but O'Neill thinks there are "a lot of twists and turns" to come in this campaign. The Irishman also believes City, shorn of the injured Craig Bellamy and Robinho up front tonight, will be a force next season. "In terms of their players I fully expect Manchester City to be big, big competitors next season," he said. "They are getting a side together with the players they bought in the January window."
The loss of Bellamy, with a knee injury for up to three weeks, will affect City as Mark Hughes said: "Since he came to the club he's carried the fight for us. Against a team like Villa you need as many of your top players available as possible." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org