BIRMINGHAM, March 16 – Martin O'Neill believes his faltering team can still scrape a Champions League place despite a dispiriting 2-1 home defeat to Tottenham which left them in fifth place in the Premier League.
O’Neill has made quashing expectations an artform during his time at Villa Park and it was only a month ago that he was fending off suggestions that he could mastermind a shock assault on the title.
But now his season is unravelling and this defeat to struggling Spurs hammered another huge dent into Villa’s ambitions of a top four finish.
Villa have now only secured two league wins on their own turf since December and the optimism that had been building so steadily towards the end of last year is evaporating with each passing week.
The renaissance of Arsenal has come at the worst possible time for O’Neill and this damaging defeat leaves Villa in fifth place, with an inferior goal difference to Arsenal.
And the result was about as depressing as the next two fixtures – trips to Liverpool and Manchester United await.
"I’m bitterly disappointed," said O’Neill. "It’s still possible for us to finish fourth, though recent form doesn’t suggest so.
"I genuinely believe we’re capable but more importantly the players feel that as well. It doesn’t look as if we can do it but we’ve got nine games to go and plenty of points to play for.
"Arsenal have got a superior goal difference but we are still in there fighting. The players have done terrifically well, and now they have to try and get over these disappointments.
"They have got to go on and fight to the end and I think we are capable of doing that. This is a setback for us and we’ve got to get something from the next two games."
It was sweet revenge for Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp on his return to the ground where earlier this season he was hit by a coin thrown by a Villa supporter,
while in charge of previous club Portsmouth.
His side rode their luck in the first half but victories are the only currency he requires in his survival mission.
Jermaine Jenas put the visitors in front with a simple header from four yards after just four minutes and Spurs somehow resisted a bombardment from the home side.
Villa’s frustrations only increased in injury time when Emile Heskey rose majestically to head Barry’s volleyed cross against the crossbar.
Indeed, there was a sense of sheer disbelief that Villa had failed to make their complete dominance count.
Disbelief became incredulity four minutes into the second half when Spurs added a second.
Wilson Palacios’ shot was saved by Brad Friedel but Robbie Keane pounced to beat the Villa keeper, with Darren Bent scraping the ball over the goalline just to make sure.
Substitute John Carew headed a James Milner cross into the top corner with six minutes remaining but there was to be no grandstand finish for Villa.
Redknapp can now smell survival.
He said: "I think we’ll need another two wins to stay up but I’ve been delighted with the players. We’ve got 33 points from my 21 games and that is a very good return.
"Nobody can predict how this league is going to turn out. But I still think Arsenal will get that fourth spot – they’ve got some fantastic players coming back.
"Some Spurs fans were saying to me they wanted us to lose at Villa because if we won we would help Arsenal – I’ve never heard anything like it."