Martin O'Neill will use tomorrow night's friendly against NEC Nijmegen to begin his Aston Villa reign for real, writes Graham Hill.

O'Neill watched Villa draw 0-0 with Hannover '96 in Germany on Saturday but, after being announced as the club's new manager the previous evening, he settled for a watching brief. But now he knows he has to take the bull by the horns and make sure Villa are prepared for the new Premiership season.

He had little input into Saturday's performance but tomorrow's game in Holland should begin to spell out O'Neill's intentions.

He is also surveying an injury list which saw Villa's midfield and strike force badly hit but Gavin McCann should be fit to join the squad as O'Neill looks to get players back quickly.

The new manager has also been encouraged by the progress made by Denmark defender Martin Laursen, who played for 17 minutes at Hannover, but O'Neill concedes that time is at a premium.

"Saturday was the first time I have had chance to watch Villa and it's difficult to make a real assessment from that," he said. "But there can be no such thing as a watching brief from now on. This is my team and I will know more by the end of this tour.

"We put a lot of effort into Saturday's game and we certainly weren't lacking in that department but it's too early to make assessments.

"Sometimes, someone plays very well and, two or three months down the line, he might not be as good as you think and it works vice versa as well. I wanted the players to play their normal game in the first half, it's difficult to take in a whole new set of instructions, especially an hour before the kick-off. There were little changes made at my discretion but I was delighted just to be in the dressing room."

O'Neill was happy with the progress of Laursen. "I don't think Aston Villa fans have seen the best of Martin Laursen," he said.

O'Neill has been strongly linked with Celtic midfielder Stilian Petrov while former Parkhead defender Didier Agathe is another favourite of the new boss. As for his current staff, O'Neill has made it clear he wants Gareth Barry to stay.

Barry had been showing concern that Villa were heading into the new season on a wave of uncertainty but with O'Neill installed, the Irishman is making Barry's future a priority, with Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth monitoring the situation.

Skipper Olof Mellberg has also said he is committed to staying after a summer of speculation linking him with a move abroad.