Fans of Aston Villa, I ask you, do you feel that Martin O’Neill made the right choice in essentially throwing away the second leg against CSKA Moscow in an attempt to push more effectively for a Champions League spot in the Premier League this season? I have to say, I think it was a very silly decision by O’Neill who I had considered until now, to be one of the most sensible managers in England.
I honestly feel that Villa stood a very good chance of going all the way in the UEFA Cup. In CSKA Moscow they were facing one of the toughest teams in the competition and yet in the first leg they matched their Russian opponents, and with a full side would have been quietly comfortable of securing passage to the next round. There are other top sides still in the tournament, notably in my opinion, AC Milan’s conquerors Werder Bremen, but Everton showed last year that English sides have what it takes to go a long way. Had the penalties fallen differently Everton would have, in my opinion, won the tournament after they had beaten eventual winners Zenit St. Petersberg relatively comfortably in the group stages.
What makes the decision to rest so many key players even more befuddling to me is the fact that Villa are no longer in the FA Cup, nor of course, the Carling Cup, the final of which is played this weekend. That means that barring a spectacular upset in the Premier League (it’s mathmatically possible at least), Villa have essentially thrown away any chance they had of collecting any silverware this season. I’m sure that for fans of a club like Villa, with their stature and history, their last meaningful silverware (a League Cup in 1996) seems all too long ago and they’d have loved the chance to celebrate an addition to a dusty trophy cabinet.
Of course, one must accept that Martin O’Neill had his reasons for resting such a plethora of talented and important players for this match. He is aiming for the lottery win that is the Champions League, and Villa’s recent performances have been a little lacklustre, as the campaign begins to catch up with a squad that doesn’t compare depth wise with the ‘big four’ who usually occupy the Champions League spots. In that sense, one must admit that O’Neill is employing a cunning strategy to aid their Champions League qualification.
But is that truly the priority? Villa have had a stunning season and really shown that they can mix it with the big boys, and now it would almost be a disappointment for them to finish outside the top four, an achievement that has seemed nigh on impossible in recent years, apart from Everton’s upset. I must say though, that apart from a big monetary boost, Villa don’t actually have much to gain from a Champions League spot.
Yes, it is the competition where everyone wants to be, and qualification for that would keep Gareth Barry at the club, but Villa can’t genuinely expect to succeed in the Champions League. While their pull for potential signings will be enhanced by the prospect of football in Europe’s most revered competition, they still will not be able to compete financially or in terms of prestige with the ‘big four’. I have to wonder then, whether O’Neill hasn’t made quite a misjudgment in his single minded pursuit of the top four.
If Villa had gone on strongly in the UEFA Cup, they would have been rewarded financially – not to the same degree, but to an extent – and would have raised the profile of the club a fair bit too. And indeed, if they should have won the competition, would have been handed a spot in next season’s Champions League anyway. Silverware and qualification! What’s more though, they would have begun to instill a winning mentality in the club.
Because however well Aston Villa perform in the Premier League, the best they can really hope for is third or fourth. They can’t realistically expect to conquer the League at this point, though no doubt this will be their eventual aim. However, a victory in the UEFA Cup would really bring a feel good factor to the club. Yes, it is Europe’s second competition, but it is still a very prestigious one, and one that is very difficult to win, with some top class teams involved.
A victory in the UEFA Cup would show the continent that Villa were a team with ambition, a desire to win things and the motivation to progress upwards to the next level. The UEFA Cup is the ideal building platform towards the Champions League, that is the very essence of it. Victory in that competition proves that you are worthy of mixing it with the best in a way that finishing fourth simply doesn’t.
The Champions League, according to it’s name should be the competition of the Champions of each European country (the debate over why it isn’t is one for another day) and so to finish fourth in the Premier League, while being a great achievement, still feels rather like a backdoor to the competition. To enter as winners would be a much more graceful entrance indeed.
So while Villa could have announced themselves to Europe in a blaze of sparkly, shiny glory, they will instead be seen as a side who turned aside from the seductive glitter of silverware in favour of a larger cheque. They turned down the chance of glory that every fan in the world dreams of simply to try and secure a larger pay off from the Premier League. If I were a Villa fan, I wouldn’t be happy about that.
If O’Neill is truly serious about taking Villa to the very top, I think he may live to regret his decision to sacrifice last night’s UEFA Cup game. I personally don’t think that Villa have the squad to really hold on for a top four place, even if they are rested frequently. I also think that though players like Gareth Barry will profess to leave without Champions League football, that a UEFA Cup Winners Medal would change their mind somewhat. I think, in terms of Villa’s progression, a UEFA Cup run would be more fruitful than a very risky attempt at fourth place, and ultimately, O’Neill may find that his sacrifice wasn’t worth the risk.