ger_macMartin O’Neill ended Aston Villa’s ten year wait for a major cup final appearance following his sides’ thrilling 6-4 defeat of Blackburn in the Carling Cup Semi-Final last night.

The Ulsterman’s tenure at the helm has seen an upturn in fortunes for the former European Cup winners since his introduction as the club’s new manager back in August 2006. So how has Villa’s improved form come about and, more importantly, how likely is it to continue into next season and beyond?

A recent run of poor league form which garnered a single point (a 0-0 draw at home to West Ham) from a possible 9 failed to prevent Villa from bouncing back against a Blackburn side with nothing to lose on a memorable night at Villa Park.

Reserve goalkeeper Brad Guizan hardly endeared himself to the home support with two flaps which resulted in an early 2-0 lead for the visitors. But Villa are made of sterner stuff nowadays and fought back superbly to take control of the tie before eventually triumphing 6-4.

It is this newfound resilience and an ever-improving young squad which has pundits predicting Villa will compete for the fourth Champions League berth before the end of the season.

O’Neill – backed by American Owner Randy Lerner – has put together an impressive first team squad over the past couple of years. Lerner has demonstrated to his fellow yanks at Liverpool (Hicks and Gillett) that American owners are best seen and never heard.

The tycoon has quietly backed his manager in the transfer market without paying out ridiculous transfer fees and as a result Aston Villa gives the impression of being a settled club both on and off the pitch.

Villa never spend inordinate amounts of cash and instead have developed a knack for signing up-and-coming talent and nurturing them into the first team (Ashley Young, Gabi Agbonlahor, James Milner etc.)The purchase of Republic of Ireland international centre-back Richard Dunne has proven an inspired decision and solidified an already imposing defence.

Add in the combined talents of Brad Friedel and Stephen Warnock and its clear to see why Villa has conceded a meagre 18 goals in their 21 EPL matches so far this season.

The Villa midfield is beautifully balanced with the pace and skill of Ashley Young and new signing Stewart Downing offering pace and width in O’Neill’s favoured 4-4-2 formation.

Stilian Petrov is enjoying one of his most productive campaigns as chief play-maker but the jewel in Villa’s crown remains James Milner. The England international has been a revelation this term and seems to get stronger with every game. His influence goes beyond the middle of the park, with crucial strikes including a converted penalty in last night’s semi underlining his burgeoning talent.

If he can maintain this kind of form until the end of the season expect Milner to emerge as a world star as part of England’s World Cup campaign in South Africa.

The most interesting statistic about the Villa forward line is the equal spread of goals amongst the strikers: Agbonlahor (10), Milner (8), Carew (6), Young (5) and Heskey (4).

A hallmark of any successful Martin O’Neill side has been the fact there is rarely one striker who has to bear the burden of the goal scoring duties (Celtic’s Larsson apart). Aston Villa have been able to chop and change their forward line because of injuries and suspensions and still come out on top with whatever strikers are selected to start.

The only caveat for Villa seems to be the fact their first team squad does not have the same strength-in-depth as the other European contenders such as Liverpool, Spurs or Man City.

Injuries to key players could yet scupper Villa’s European hopes as the over-reliance on the same 13 or 14 first team regulars is bound to lead to fatigue before the season’s end.

Martin O’Neill is adding to his squad each season and qualifying for the Europa League will shortly become a minimum requirement for a club enjoying a quiet revolution thanks to steady hand of their manager and owner.

Certain sections of Villa Park were heard booing their team at the end of the recent 0-0 draw with struggling West Ham United. As Villa’s consistency improves so doest he expectation of breaking into the top four.

Aston Villa may not make the Champions League this season but under the stewardship of Lerner and O’Neill, some additional summer signings and the improving form of Milner, Young and Agbonlahor qualification for Europe’s premier competition may not be far away.

offcentecirclebylineGer McCarthy is the author of Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the curious life of  a West Cork League junior footballer.

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