Martin O’Neill admits that a packed domestic and European programme will soon lead to Villa having to “prioritise” matches.

O’Neill is faced with a further six matches as well as two Uefa Cup ties before the end of the year, having already played 23 games this season.

The Irishman will be able to bring back the likes of Nicky Shorey, Moustapha Salifou, Brad Guzan, Zat Knight, Craig Gardner and Marlon Harewood when they take on MSK Zilina at Villa Park a week on Thursday.

But too heavy a reliance on such players will weaken a side that now appears to have realistic aspirations of challenging Arsenal for a Champions League spot. 

“I think the season is exceptionally hard”, he said. “We’ ve got to treat the games on their merits. We disappointed last time at home against Middlesbrough and we’ve fought back from that which is great.

“We’re improving and the players have got great confidence about themselves.”

Villa are within a point of progressing to the last 32 of the Uefa Cup which would see them take a break from that competition until February.

But big matches are never far away.

Their first match of 2009 will be in the third round of the FA Cup before a local derby with West Bromwich Albion.

“Looking at where we’re positioned at the moment," O’Neill said, “we’ve been ‘at it’, playing competitively since July when we were involved in the InterToto Cup.

“At some stage or another it probably will catch up and then we’ll have to go and prioritise.

“I’m delighted with the progress in the Uefa Cup. That’s what we set out to do but at some stage around about Christmas time I’m going to have to sit down and think about this, because if we have a chance of making progress I’ll see (what can be done to improve the chances).

“But at the moment players love to play. Gabby Agbonlahor wants to play every week, so does Ashley Young and they’re really enjoying themselves.”

O’Neill has relied heavily on a number of players throughout the season, with five players – Agbonlahor, Gareth Barry, Brad Friedel, Martin Laursen, and Ashley Young – having appeared in every game.

As far as eight-goal top-scorer Agbonlahor is concerned, O’Neill is lavish in his praise for a player who appears to show no signs of slowing up despite the rigorous schedule.

“He made his debut for England, which I was absolutely delighted with, and Gareth Barry played the match so that’s great”, O’Neill said.

“You’ve got to get a bit of confidence about yourself and being involved with the England squad you’ve got to come back and feel great. You’re mixing with the very best.

“I accept the fact that England had some great players missing from the game but just to be in that company I think it’s fantastic and well done them.”

O’Neill has given his players a two-day break from training before he prepares in

earnest for the visit of Roy Hodgson’s Fulham to Villa Park. He knows that a win will lift them to third in the table, above Manchester United and Arsenal who play difficult matches against Manchester City and Chelsea on Sunday.

O’Neill was more than satisfied with a four-point haul from fixtures against Arsenal and United.

“We’ve competed as strongly as we could and we’ve taken four points from the last two games against two top-class teams,” he said.

“It was good for us to be in there, to be trying to match United.”

Meanwhile, James Milner believes Villa deserve credit for taking United on rather than sitting back for a point.

The winger said: “Some teams would have clocked up a goalless draw having sat back throughout the game. They would have ground it out.

“But we caused them problems. We created some chances against undoubtedly one of the best teams in the country.

“It was a good three points against Arsenal. It was important to follow that up with another good performance against Manchester United and we could even have nicked it at the end.”