Martin O’Neill will savour Thursday night's Uefa Cup clash with Ajax, anticipating the most electrifying atmosphere of his career at Villa Park thus far as his side go after the cup which he describes as the “Holy Grail.”
O’Neill is no stranger to incredible European nights of football, both in his time as a player with Nottingham Forest with whom he won the European Cup in 1980 but also as a manager with Celtic, whom he guided to the Uefa Cup final in 2003.
The Northern Irishman believes games like this are a huge asset in the development of his young squad while reminding supporters that he also has a team packed with players who have European experience including Carlos Cuellar, Stiliyan Petrov, Martin Laursen and John Carew.
O’Neill, who has a full squad available with no injury doubts, said: “This is a big, big night and the kind of game which marks the fact we are in the tournament. Ajax have a great name, synonymous with European football. I submit to the view that the Champions League and Uefa Cup are the Holy Grail.
“Games like this certainly give me an opportunity to sample the sort of European atmosphere that people tell me Villa Park has on an evening like this.”
The Villa boss is convinced Villa Park will be rocking with around 40,000 supporters expected.
He said: “I managed at Celtic and Celtic Park is one of the most atmospheric grounds in the world but it can be like that here. I think when you play European football and you make a bit of progress, then automatically you really notice the crowd.
“This is an opportunity for us to get a feel for it and for the younger players to feel that this is really what you are playing for.
“If we get beaten we could certainly not blame lack of experience because the side that will go in against Ajax will be packed with experience. Cuellar, for example, played all the Uefa Cup games through to the final with Rangers last season, Petrov played in the Celtic 2003 final and Carew has been involved, too.”
O’Neill hopes his players will enjoy the experience, particularly as his own memories of playing in the European Cup with Nottingham Forest are still so vivid.
He said: “These type of matches are worth their weight in gold for the players in terms of meeting class opposition, class players.
“I used to marvel at times when we played in European football with Forest against big sides like Barcelona who would be comfortable with two against two at the back, happy to leave two centre-backs back and two centre-forwards forward and full-backs going maurading. They knew they could cope with these types of situations but that only comes from great confidence in your team mates.”
O’Neill has certainly done his homework on the Dutch giants and insists, despite the fact they are undergoing a period of transition under new manager Marco Van Basten, they will be no pushover.
He said: “I have watched them play and saw a DVD of their game last Saturday and I think, as befits an Ajax side, they are so comfortable with the ball. Players are easy in the sense that when the ball is played into them in difficult situations, they come out with the ball.
“You would expect this of an Ajax side whether they are top of the league, in a European Cup final or whatever. You would expect them to be mobile. They have one or two players like Klaas Jan Huntelaar who are familiar to most of us but Gabriel Garcia de la Torre played for Barcelona, as well. Urby Emanuelson at left back has been talked about for a couple of years and is ready for the next step forward – they can certainly play.”