ASTON VILLA boss Martin O’Neill refused to talk up his side’s chances of splitting up the Barclays Premier League’s big four after victory at Sunderland last night.
Villa climbed into third place behind Chelsea and Manchester United as a result of their third successive league win, courtesy of Emile Heskey’s first-half strike and James Milner’s thunderbolt after the break.
However, O’Neill insists there is too far to go for Villa yet to be considered as genuine challengers for a Champions League berth.
He said: “At this stage, when we are not even halfway through the league, there is a general tendency when you win a couple of games to get incredibly excited about something.
“We had a taste of it from the other side – we lost the opening game of the season against Wigan at home and there was plenty of gloom about the place as well.
“I tend, if I can, to try to keep a level head about things.
“My own view, if you are asking me about it, is that the top four teams, who have been the top four teams for a long, long time bar one season when Everton broke it, those four sides over a 38-game season will eventually command those positions.
“Having said that, Manchester City are very strong – they have only lost one game this season – and Tottenham, despite the hiccup the other day (against Wolves), are very strong.
“Our squad has got better, we have a wee bit more strength in depth in it, and that will be tested over the next couple of months.”
Villa, who had already hit the crossbar through Stewart Downing’s 16th-minute free-kick, took the lead eight minutes later, although Sunderland contributed to their own downfall.
George McCartney’s aimless pass was picked off by Stiliyan Petrov, who fed Milner, and the midfielder slid the ball perfectly into the path of Heskey, who gleefully thumped home.
Brad Friedel had to make a fine 37th-minute save from Andy Reid, who then passed up a glorious opportunity four minutes after the restart.
However, Ashley Young hit the post with 57 minutes gone and the game was effectively over four minutes later when Milner marked his return to the north east with a magnificent second.
The former Newcastle man picked up possession 30 yards out and, having looked up briefly, unleashed a missile that sped high past Marton Fulop and into the top corner.
O’Neill said: “Milner has just been fantastic since he arrived at the football club. Last season, he interchanged with Ashley (Young) left and right.
“He has come into the middle now and he has just been colossal for us, colossal.
“From midfield, it is his third goal in five games. He deserves it as well because he is an exceptional fella.”
To rub salt into Sunderland’s wounds, skipper Lorik Cana, who had earlier been booked for a foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor, repeated the dose with Milner this time the victim and was dismissed.
Manager Steve Bruce, who has tipped Villa for a top-four finish, said: “We were beaten by the better team, I have to say that.
“There were two defining moments: we gave a poor goal away in the first half, surrendered possession and gifted them the goal.
“In the second half, we started brightly enough and we had a big chance when Andy Reid had a chance – if that goes in, it might be a different game.
“But my opinion hasn’t changed – if there is going to be one (team) that’s going to be breaking into it (the top four), they are going to be there.
“They are big, strong, powerful – you look at their bench and they have got unbelievable strength in depth.
“I think this is Martin’s fourth season and they are unrecognisable to where they were when he took over. The progress he has made and his players, it’s an unbelievable difference.”
SUNDERLAND: Fulop, Nosworthy, Turner (Mensah 82), Da Silva, McCartney, Henderson (Cattermole 71), Cana, Richardson, Reid, Bent, Jones (Bardsley 82).
ASTON VILLA: Friedel, Luke Young, Cuellar, Dunne, Warnock, Ashley Young, Petrov, Milner, Downing, Heskey, Agbonlahor (Sidwell 90).
Referee: Kevin Friend.
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