As exciting and popular as the Premier League is, recent years have seen a steady and consistent top four domination by Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. The strangle hold has raised arguments that however thrilling the Premier League has become, it is some what predictable, especially from the point of view of the neutral or "lower" league team.
Manchester City may have accelerated there ambitions with now limitless financial backing that puts them ahead of any team in the world, let alone in the Premier League, but its Aston Villa who look most likely to break in to the top 4 the earliest.
Martin O'Neill's has slowly built his Villa squad since leaving Celtic back in 2005. In comparison to the top 4 teams, and quite a few teams outside that elusive group, O'Neill's has spent more conservatively. At the time, when O'Neill bought Ashley Young from Watford for around 10 million pounds, it seemed like yet another over inflated price for a young, unproven English player. However, with O'Neill's patience, Young has slowly began to provide a return on that investment, and is knocking on the door of the England senior team.
The theme of young English players runs through the Villa side, with players such as Curtis Davies, Zak Knight, James Milner and Nigel Reo-Coker all bought for reasonable figures, are now ever present starters for O'Neill's team. In addition to the purchases of these players- and more, we have seen the emergence of Gabriel Agbonlahor. O'Neill's has nurtured, and more importantly given the opportunity to Agbonlahor to graduate from the youth setup which is now providing dividends, with Agbonlahor currently the clubs top goal scorer in the Premier League with 10 goals.
Not all of the players at Villa fit in to the defined specification of young and English. The squad has been balanced with experience and flare with the likes of Petrov, Friedel, Carew and Heskey. Emile Heskey may prove to be a bargain and will provide a great foil for Agbonlahor's pace. While Heskey has never really been a prolific goal scorer, he more than makes up for it with his physical presence which others feed off. Just ask hungry Amr Zaki at Wigan, who's goal scoring touch seems to have deserted him, since Heskeys departure, an unlikely coincidence.
O'Neill's shrewd dealings in the transfer market, and his sheer stubbornness to keep the highly influential Gareth Barry, has proven that it is possible to assemble a team that can finally challenge the top 4's monopoly, without having to rely on the loose purse strings of an Oil Tycoon. They may have American entrepreneur Randy Lerner instead, who is by no means shy of spending a few quid, but the purchases have been reasonable and strategic.
All Villa's concentration is now focused on pinching 4th spot, which was further exemplified by the reserve team that played in the Uefa cup defeat to CSKA Moscow. The policy to treat the Uefa cup like a inconvenience and not an opportunity of silverware, echo's the kind of arrogance demonstrated by the very managers who O'Neill is trying to rub shoulders with. And, rightly so. I'm sure a few die hard fans who made the trip to sunny Moscow will be disappointed, but the priority has to be on the Premiership.
Can they hold on? Arsenal are back on form and have the timely return of Eduardo and Walcott, to help selvage their season, as they try to restore order in the top 4 elite. I hope for O'Neill's sake, that the gamble in Moscow pays off, and Villa are not left out of the final Champions league spots, and not left to wonder what might have been in the Uefa cup.