GABRIEL AGBONLAHOR believes Aston Villa’s early European exit could prove “a blessing in disguise” and allow Martin O’Neill’s side to push for a Champions League place.
The England striker was as disappointed as his team-mates when Villa failed to reach the group stages of the Europa League after losing to Rapid Vienna on the away goals rule.
But Agbonlahor expects Villa will reap the benefits of a pared-down schedule as they look to challenge for a top-four place.
He hit the target for the third successive match in Villa’s comfortable 2-0 home win over bottom-placed Portsmouth – their fourth win on the trot since the opening-day defeat by Wigan. Agbonlahor said: “I think the top four is a realistic aim. It is going to be hard. A lot of teams are in with a shout of making it. There is no reason with the current squad why we can’t be involved.
“It is not good to go out of Europe but, if we had been in there, we would have played Thursday-Sunday and it may have been a different result against Portsmouth.
“Then, with the Carling Cup coming up this Wednesday as well, it would have been a heavy fixture list.
“It (going out of Europe) means more rest for the players and it is showing at the moment.
“Of course, we wanted to do as well as possible in Europe – but it might be a blessing in disguise (to have gone out) in terms of the league.”
Agbonlahor is keen for supporters to reserve judgement on the team until the end of the season after the boos that greeted the home reversal by Wigan only a month ago. He said: “After the first game, we were getting stick and getting booed and it just shows it is a 38-game season.
“You’ve got to judge us at the end of the season – not after one game.
“We knew we played poorly ourselves in the first game, and we also knew we could put it right, and the team is playing with confidence now.”
Agbonlahor looks back to his best and Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov senses a determination in the striker to be part of Fabio Capello’s England squad for the 2010 World Cup.
Bulgaria international Petrov said: “Gabby wants to make the World Cup and he is making every game count – and that is what he will do to the end of the season. He has been on fire. His goal against Portsmouth was unbelievable.
“Gabby wants to achieve things and one of them is to go to the World Cup. He wants to be there.”
Petrov also insisted Villa were not suffering any hangover from the training ground incident involving O’Neill and midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker who was axed from the squad to face Portsmouth.
He said: “We are professionals. Things like that happen in football.
“Everyone in the team is a fighter.
“We want to fight and achieve things and we know things like that will happen during a season because, when you want to be a winner, things like that will happen. We can understand what has happened. That will go away as long as we win as a team and that is what we did as a team.”
Portsmouth goalkeeper David James is putting his own thoughts of the World Cup on the back-burner during his club’s current plight and insists performances are improving. He said: “You have to focus on what was good and continually try to replicate that and try to eliminate what was bad. It wasn’t a case of Villa ripping us apart.
“We are actually playing some very good football and that is what is hard to take and, possibly the last couple of games has been some of the best we’ve done in the last six months.”
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