BIRMINGHAM, August 14 – Martin O'Neill fears Aston Villa's chances of breaking into the Premier League's top four this season have been dealt a blow by Manchester City's huge spending spree.Villa seemed capable of snatching a Champions League place for over half of last season, until they fell away dramatically when it mattered most in the final weeks of the campaign.
Ultimately O’Neill, whose side start the new season at home to Wigan on Saturday, had to be content with a Europa League place instead, but steady progress has been the watchword for the Ulsterman for the three years he has been at Villa Park and he wants to make another step forward this season.
Yet investment at Villa Park has been nothing like the grand scale at City, with only three new signings in Habib Beye, Stewart Downing and Fabian Delph.
The departure of Gareth Barry and the loss to retirement of key Danish defender Martin Laursen will be felt keenly, and O’Neill concedes it will be harder than ever to crack the top four.
"Of course it is going to be harder to get into the top four, because of what Manchester City have done in the transfer market, but we cannot just say we are giving up. We have to have ambitions to try and get there and we will be doing all we can to achieve that," O’Neill said.
Starting the season against Wigan certainly gives Villa an early opportunity to remedy the poor home form which was an important factor in their inability to see through their challenge to Arsenal for fourth place.
Just seven home wins was the same record as relegated West Bromwich Albion, devaluing Villa’s ten wins on their travels.
"Home form was very disappointing last season and we want to do something about that. If we can keep our away form good and catch up at home, that will be something to enable us to move forward. We need to better at Villa Park," O’Neill added.
Fortunately for O’Neill, all his internationals returned from midweek duty without injury and James Milner with his confidence injected thanks to his impressive 25-minute cameo debut for England in their friendly draw against Holland.
The carrot of a place in England’s World Cup squad at the end of the season will be motivation for Milner, Ashley Young, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Downing is another England hopeful, but he will be unavailable until the New Year because of his fractured foot.
Bulgarian Stylian Petrov has recovered from a dislocated shoulder suffered in the pre-season Peace Cup tournament and should be fit to play, but Luke Young will be absent with a thigh injury.
New Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has promised to retain the attacking principles he demonstrated with his former club Swansea, but he will have to do without French midfielder Oliver Kapo, who has failed to recover from a knee injury.
Much will depend on how his new team copes with the loss of Antonio Valencia and Lee Cattermole to Manchester United and Sunderland respectively.
Martinez was hoping to fill the gap left by Cattermole’s departure with the signing of Rayo Vallecano midfielder Mohamed Diame.
Unfortunately his medical has shown up concerns about his heart and Wigan are awaiting further tests over the weekend, before deciding whether to press ahead with a four million pounds deal for him and his Rayo team-mate Antonio Amaya.