MARTIN O’Neill has warned his Aston Villa shadow side not to underestimate the threat posed by tonight’s UEFA Cup opponents MSK Zilina.
O’Neill does not subscribe to the view the Slovakian minnows should be easy pickings for a Villa team keen to win Group F.
The Villa manager points to Zilina’s goalless draw with Slavia Prague last week as evidence of the ability of the group’s bottom team. Prague caused Villa problems in their 1-0 win in the Czech capital last month and O’Neill believes Zilina equally dangerous.
“I’ve watched DVDs of their matches,” said O’Neill, planning to make half a dozen changes from the side that drew with Fulham on Saturday. “I’ve watched the two UEFA Cup games they’ve played and the league game against Slovan Bratislava. I think in their game against Prague they started off really brightly and applied pressure. The second-half Prague started to come into the game and, eventually, the result suited us.
“I felt our game against Prague was really hard in the second-half as some of our players started to get tired and Brad Guzan had to make a couple of great saves. Zilina and Prague played out a stalemate so you’d have to think they’ll be just as dangerous.”
Zilina, having lost to Hamburg and Ajax, in addition to their draw with Prague, have just one point.
However, O’Neill suspects the lack of pressure on the underdogs could see them play with freedom at Villa Park.
“Zilina have got a bit of talent and good players, as befits a club side from that part of the world,” he said. “They’ve got one or two players that can manoeuvre it. They’ve nothing to lose, they’re already out, so they’ll maybe come and play more freely, which may be more dangerous for us.”
UEFA Cup rules state group winners and runners-up have the advantage of playing the second-leg at home in the last 32.
Winners face third-placed opponents from another group, while runners-up are paired against the teams dropping out of the Champions League.
With the top three from each group qualifying, Villa have virtually sealed their passage. However, O’Neill is anxious to ensure his team get the positive result needed tonight to strengthen their position as group leaders.
“At this minute I’m sounding very positive,” he said. “We’ve won the two games and I’d like to try and win so we’re in a good position in the group. It’s in our own hands, but even if we won, depending on the Hamburg result, we’re not guaranteed of qualifying at the moment.So the top two positions, from that advantage alone, are worth pursuing.
“But if you’d have said to me in July when we started against Odense we’d be fighting to get into the final 32 I’d take it and I’d scramble through. It’s just hoping the changes in the side will gel because our players are decent players. They did brilliantly in Prague and there’s no reason we can’t go and do it again.”
Fringe players Guzan, Zat Knight, Craig Gardner, Moustapha Salifou and Craig Gardner are all set to start tonight’s game.
However, Nicky Shorey is a doubt after suffering flu symptoms, while O’Neill will also check on the fitness of two unnamed players injured in training yesterday.