IF, as is generally assumed, at least two of the Premier League’s established big beasts are endangered species this season, there is little doubt as to who is clutching the rifle in the long grass.
Aston Villa, the top flight’s new hunter killers, have the scent of blood in their nostrils and with each passing week, the chances of them landing a fatal shot on Liverpool or Arsenal continue to grow.
Even the memories of last season’s Springtime capitulation, which saw Villa plummet out of contention after an awful run of form, should not be playing on the minds of the midlanders this Christmas.
There is a more solid and dependable appearance to Martin O’Neill’s squad this season and there is little doubt the club now has the depth necessary to launch an assault on the Champions League places, with this scratchy but precious victory – secured by John Carew’s second-half header – keeping them on level points with Arsenal.
The potential for rotation might, in itself, be frustrating but any anger felt by Villa’s players would be multiplied if they stumbled again through lack of numbers.
“It is very frustrating because every one of us wants to play, which is natural for every footballer, but we know only 11 can start,” Stiliyan Petrov, the club captain, said.
“It is good that we have people on the bench like Nigel Reo-Coker and Habib Beye who could easily walk into the team if the manager decides to pick them.
“I think the manager excepts we might need to rotate, he knows that. That is why we have so many players and we have got two teams equal here now so he can rotate without worrying about getting weaker.”
Petrov believes O’Neill may decide to try and strengthen the squad during the January transfer window despite its current depth.
“It is definitely strong but Martin O’Neill always tries to improve the team and the chairman (Randy Lerner) has been very supportive to the manager,” the Bulgarian said.
“If he adds something, it will be good for the team. It is a strong squad but the manager knows things change very quickly in football, injuries, suspensions.
“We will see. It will be interesting because, not just us, but other teams will try to strengthen as well so I hope we can get even stronger.”
Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen believes his former club are capable of sustaining a push for a Champions League spot.
“They definitely can challenge the top four,” he said. “They have got a good team, a good balance, with maybe one more midfielder going forward with James Milner and Stiliyan Petrov sitting back a bit.
“It gives a lot of the players space and it is paying off at the moment.
“Last season maybe they paid a bit with the European involvement but now they’ve got a better squad.”
Sorensen is aware Stoke, wh osaw Mamady Sidibe’s goal harshly disallowed for a push, have to start converting their chances.
“The Achilles heel has been not taking our chances. We defended well, put pressure on them and they were feeling real frustration.”
REFEREE: Lee Probert (Wiltshire) 6: Some controversy about Stoke’s disallowed goal, which might have been allowed to stand.
MATCH RATING: ** Reasonably grim but this is the sort of win that Villa will need to eke out if they are to finish in the top four.
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