In a week where England qualified for Euro 2012 and Alex McLeish compared Emile Heskey to Franz Beckenbauer – love it Eck – it is nice to get back down to business in the Premier League with Aston Villa`s unbeaten run being tested to the metal tomorrow.
A visit to joint league leaders Manchester City may be a daunting prospect but with the feel good factor in the camp and an evident sign of resiliency, Villa may fancy upsetting the apple cart in the blue half of Manchester.
You only need to rewind to our trip 10 months back where we were well and truly humbled 4-0 as Mario Balotelli netted a hat-trick in one of the most abject performances from a Villa team in many a year. Although you would not bet against the same scoreline this time around due to the form of our hosts – which has been frightening at times – it is inevitable that the passion and desire will be demonstrated unlike before.
City may be dealing with an unwelcome debacle with striker Carlos Tevez but that will not hinder their performance on the pitch and will be going all out for the win tomorrow afternoon. The good news for Villa is that the country`s most expensive import Sergio Aguero, is out with a groin problem. The bad news is Edin Dzeko will most probably come into the fold alongside Super Mario.
As for ourselves, Gabby Agbonlahor is winning his fitness battle and should be fit for the game. There are not enough superlatives to epitomise just how well he has played this season and signed us off prior to the international break with a stellar display against Wigan Athletic which had the Holte-End bellowing his name as loud as ever.
How about this for a comparison, Emile Heskey and Franz Beckenbauer? Those were the words from our gaffer Alex McLeish, obviously meant in jest, as he hinted at a possible new deal for the 33-year-old, with his contract in its final year:
‘Emile is in the last year of his contract but I don’t think he needs to worry about his future.’ Eck hinted.
‘Emile is a player who can play anywhere and won’t let you down. He is a fantastic professional. I never have cheek from him. Sometimes you’ll hear coaches shout ‘brilliant’ from the side but the one minute you criticise them and say ‘you should have done this’ they’re chirping back at you.
‘They don’t chirp back and say ‘thanks for saying brilliant’ of course! But Emile is a guy who gets his head down, and gets on with it.
‘He is a brilliant all-round player, he understands the game, we need him in the squad.
‘We played him at centre-back last week and he was spraying the ball about the whole pitch as if I was watching Franz Beckenbauer.’
The manager also confirmed that Gabby should be fit for tomorrow`s game after recovering from a back problem:
‘He`s been back on the training field and we`re pleased with the progress he has made on his back problem.’
‘Gabby seems to be fine and we just have watch the load we give him in training. I think the smart money is on him being available against City.’
As for the game itself, he talked up our chance at possibly returning from Eastlands still unbeaten. Although the size of the task is huge, McLeish is adamant the Villans can make it difficult for the big spenders.
He told AVTV:
‘City are one of the favorites for the title and they will be quite high up in European terms as well in terms of the Champions League’
‘That Bayern Munich result (2-0 defeat two week ago in the Champions League) would have given them a wee eye opener but they are very strong. They have a really strong side and should be better than most teams in the league.
‘But we are in a confident moment and if the players play to their top level, and we can make it difficult for City, then you never know what can happen in football. We are certainly not fazed by it, we don’t look on it as a daunting task, we look on it as a great challenge.
‘We want to come back from the Etihad Stadium unbeaten. That is our goal, our aim. We will try and put a plan together and make it difficult for City in the process.’
Manchester City Team News:
Sergio Aguero is out. Mario Balotelli is a slight doubt with a back problem but should be fit for the game.
Player to watch: David Silva
It has to be the early frontrunner for the PFA Player of the Year David Silva. The little Spaniard has been in mesmerising form this season and demonstrated his capabilities for his national team in a standout display against Scotland in the week.
He has the ability to unlock defences with diligent passing and can weave his way into the penalty area with ease. Alex McLeish will have earmarked him as City`s most dangerous threat and if Villa can somehow quell his influence, then we have a chance.
Aston Villa Team News:
Agbonlahor is fit, as too James Collins who missed international duty with Wales due to a foot injury.
Striker Nathan Delfouneso is out however after picking up a hamstring tear on international duty with the England U21`s.
Player to watch: Shay Given
Coming up against his former club for the first time since his move in the summer, Shay Given will love nothing more than to put in a sterling display.
He has been top draw since his £3.5m move – an absolute bargain in today`s market – and will undoubtedly prove his worth over the upcoming winter period.
Match Facts & Stats
Villa’s last win at Eastlands came in a 2-0 win in April 2007 thanks to goals from John Carew and Shaun Maloney.
Villa have lost just one of their last 15 Premier League games.
A case of thinking with your head and you heart in this one. Realistically, it is a big ask to go to the Etihad and pick up a result but I am more positive now than I was 10 months back. There is a togetherness in the camp once again, a resiliency, a desire and a defence that can look unbeatable at times. For once I am sure the Villa faithful will be more than happy to see us sit back and absorb the pressure yet see what we can do on the counter attack. Big ask but I will go with my heart on this one and predict a 0-0 stalemate. Of course my head knows that our first defeat in the league looks more or less a formality.
West Bromwich Albion at home next Saturday.