Friday, 27 February 2009

O'Neill causes controversy by leaving stars at home

Aston Villa fans across the country have been sporting little red marks on their bodies for months now. This is the inevitable result of these fans waking up every morning, turning to the sports pages of the newspaper, and pinching themselves in disbelief as they still find their team sitting comfortably in the top four of the Premier League.

Villa's scintillating run of form has been dismissed by many as a "lucky streak" which will undoubtedly come to an end sooner rather than later. Those holding such an opinion will point to Villa's recent defeat at the hands of Chelsea as evidence of this theory. Despite this result, which for Villa fans will hopefully turn out to be a minor blip rather than an indicator of serious trouble at Villa Park, it's been a fantastic season so far for the club and the fans.

Given Villa's break into the top four, it's understandable that Martin O'Neill wants to do everything possible to ensure the table still looks as rosy when the end of the season comes. If Villa do manage to break the established order of English football and finish in a Champions League qualifying position, it will be an outstanding accomplishment from a young team led by an extremely talented manager.

However, some fans have been left questioning the sacrifices made in the quest for such glory. Yesterday, O'Neill decided to field an under-strength team away to CSKA Moscow in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup. The manager left eight regular first-team players out of the starting line-up, choosing instead to throw numerous reserve and young players in at the deep end.

CSKA Moscow beat Villa 2-0, a result which "disappointed" the manager. However, O'Neill refused to admit that he had made a mistake, stating that "it's important to look at the bigger picture".

If Villa qualify for the Champions League and find themselves playing in the Bernabeu or the San Siro next season, this result will no doubt fade into insignificance. However, with the talent and pace inherent in the Villa first team, some fans have been left rueing a missed opportunity.

Not many feelings in sport compare to the one experienced by fans after their team wins a trophy and a victorious run in this competition could have given the Villa players that extra level of confidence needed to ensure they keep their nerve during the season's closing stages.

UEFA Cup defeat means that the players will have fresh legs for their Premier League assault but psychology counts at least as much as physical fitness and, taking Arsenal as one example, the damage inflicted by just one negative result can be disastrous.

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