Heading into Sunday’s match at home to Burnley, Aston Villa are just two points back of a Europa League spot and three points adrift of a Champions League place. They also have a decent stretch of matches between now and April, and it’s quite conceivable that they could be fourth or fifth in the standings by Easter.
That would mean European football. It would mean fixture congestion. It would mean long flights to Poland or Greece just days before meaningful Premier League matches. In other words, it would mean a "big" club’s schedule. And it’s exactly what the club are targeting.
It’s also why they’re unlikely to make much of a fuss about the replay against Crystal Palace on Wednesday. Villa are in this situation because they’ve qualified for the late stages of two cup competitions. Full credit to them for that. It’s certainly nothing to complain about.
O’Neill’s only concern will be fielding a good enough side to beat Palace at home, while ensuring his best players are in peak condition for Sunday’s Wembley final. It’s hardly an impossible task, and I think he’ll balance the two squads quite nicely. He has experience to draw upon, because he definitely learned the hard way.
Rewind almost exactly a year. Locked with Arsenal in a two-way battle for fourth spot, O’Neill sent a weakened side to the slaughter in Moscow. They lost 2-0 and were bounced from the UEFA Cup. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Gareth Barry, Carlos Cuellar, Brad Friedel, Emile Heskey, James Milner, Stiliyan Petrov and Ashley Young stayed in Birmingham. The thinking at the time was that O’Neill was sacrificing the European campaign for a run in the Premier League.
It backfired big time. Villa won only two more matches the rest of the season, en route to a sixth-place finish. Lesson learned.
O’Neill won’t make the same mistake again. Yes, he has a shot at a trophy on February 28, but he also has a legitimate chance to make a serious run at the FA Cup. And while his squad isn’t particularly deep, I think it’s good enough to do a job at home to Palace and be competitive against United.
Fabian Delph will obviously start against the London side, and I suspect Curtis Davies will as well. Steve Sidwell will also get a starting place, but I think Milner, Downing and one of the big strikers will also be in the first 11.
That sort of mix should be enough to dispatch Palace. And if the job is done by the hourmark, O’Neill will take the opportunity to make some early substitutions.
Aston Villa won’t win or lose the Carling Cup final because of Wednesday’s FA Cup replay. They’ll win or lose because they’re good enough, or not.