Martin O’Neill admits Aston Villa have sorely missed the “big heart” of injured skipper Martin Laursen after seeing their hopes of securing Champions League football virtually disappear.
Laursen is expected to finally announce he will be quitting the game during the next few days after the latest in a long line of knee setbacks.
The 31-year-old has been sidelined since early January when he appeared in the 2-1 home success over West Brom.
And O’Neill concedes Villa have struggled to replace his dominating presence in the penalty area and his knack of scoring vital goals at set-pieces.
O’Neill said: “We have missed Martin greatly. We have won matches without him this season but his overall contribution and absence has been a big loss.
“We have conceded 26 goals in 12 games but had only conceded three in the previous eight games when Martin hadn’t played.
“But the overall picture is that we have missed him. We have missed his presence, his ability to score some goals for us, and he was as brave as a lion.
“His overall presence is what we have missed. He goes for everything. He has got a big heart.
“The ironic thing is he has had no problems with the other knee which is the one that gave him the problems throughout the last few years.
“He looks after himself brilliantly and, after the West Ham game in December, if you had said he would only play one more league game (against West Brom) I would have been really surprised.”
O’Neill confirmed left-back Wilfred Bouma was unlikely to play again this season after having minor keyhole surgery to the ankle which has kept him out of action since July.
He said: “Bouma has been to see a specialist. He had a couple of particles floating around in his ankle. He has got that sorted but will be unlikely to play this season.”