Aston Villa play at Portsmouth tonight looking to further their impressive case for a top four finish, writes Nick Harris
The main debate about Aston Villa this season has focused on whether they can finish in the top four but a more significant question has been largely overlooked as fanciful. Is it possible that Martin O'Neill's team can not just maintain their spot in the Champions League places but win the title?
"Of course not," is the response of supporters of the "big four", most of whom who will probably expect Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal to fill the top four spaces at the season's end in some order. Recent history supports that case. They filled those four berths last season. And the season before. And the season before.
In fact United, Arsenal and Chelsea have shared the last 13 titles between them, and no team outside the "big four" has gatecrashed the top two since Newcastle in 1996-97. In every season for more than decade at least three of the big four have finished within the top four. Four times in the last five seasons they have all finished in the top four.
But this is no ordinary season. It is a season of intrigue, shaping up to be the most closely contested ever, at both ends of the table.
At this stage typically, when the majority of clubs have played 22 games, there has been a sizeable gulf between the leaders and the club in fourth. As our accompanying table shows, United had a 12-point lead over fourth-placed Liverpool after 22 games a year ago, and the comparable margin in the four years before that was 15, 21, 12 and 15 points.
You need to go back to 2001-02 to find the difference between the leaders – Newcastle United – and the fourth-placed club – Arsenal – to have been as small (three points), as the gap between the current leaders, United, and the fourth-placed club, Villa. In 2002, the title went to Arsenal.
Of course, we cannot thus extrapolate that 2009 will be Villa's year. But the statistics underline how competitive they have remained, so far. And with winnable games afoot – at ailing Portsmouth this evening and then at home to Wigan – there are sound reasons for belief the run can go on.
Certainly the acquisition of Emile Heskey in the transfer window has given impetus at a time when Villa's title rivals are suffering crises with confidence and injuries. Within the Villa ranks, the players feel they can push on rather than fold.
As their England defender, Luke Young, said yesterday: "The other teams are thinking that Villa will crack. I think that's what most people are thinking, but up to now, we have not done that. We have ridden our luck a bit in a few games, but we have kept picking up wins.
"People are waiting for us to slip up and at the minute we haven't done that. It gives you a bit of an incentive but we have put ourselves in such a great position. Our mentality is to try and win every game and you've got to do that when you are fourth in the league and trying to fight with the teams that rarely slip up.
"Emile can only help us. His experience will help us in the run-in. He has played over 500 games and at 31 years old, the experience he is going to bring to us will be really good for us. Everyone in the game knows how good he is.
"Maybe people outside of the game don't give him the credit he deserves, but I think after his performances for England people have started talking about him in the right way. He will be invaluable to us and can only help our push for the Champions League."
Villa have won their last five away games in the Premier League, and with Heskey, a snip at £3.5m, set for his debut tonight, are confident of making it six. On Heskey, O'Neill says: "He will be excellent for us. At the moment he is at least vying to be the No 1 England centre-forward so he is great value for us."
But while O'Neill wants to add further players in this transfer window, he has warned he will not pay "extortionate" prices. "We are not in that game," he says. "The chairman [Randy Lerner] wants to run this as a business. I am in total agreement with it. You see so many clubs now in serious financial difficulty."
Before any Villa gets too optimistic, the stats provide one note of caution. The last time they were just three points off the lead at this stage (in 1998-99), they collected a mere 15 points from their last 16 games and ended up sixth.