Olof Mellberg left London on Saturday night with the distinction of having scored the first goal at Emirates Stadium but his pleasure went deep enough for him to fully realise its implications for Aston Villa.

With Martin O'Neill in charge for the first time, Villa drew 1-1 with Arsenal and produced a performance, particularly in defence, that augurs well for the season.

Mellberg, having relinquished the captaincy with Villa and with Sweden, seemed to revel in his newfound liberty and, along with Liam Ridgwell at the heart of the defence, was adroit and solid.

Mellberg scored with a near-post header in the 53rd minute and, although Gilberto Silva equalised with seven minutes remaining, Villa emerged with more credit and, now under O'Neill, optimism that the years of under-achievement are over.

The match came five years and one day after Mellberg made his Villa debut, away to Tottenham Hotspur on August 18, 2001and there is a feeling that the defender is starting a new chapter in his career with the club.

He said: "This was not really about my goal being the first at this stadium, it was more about the result and the way we played. It was about how we defended, from the forwards right back to Thomas Sorensen in goal and about how hard we worked.

"I didn't have a clue that I had scored the first goal at this stadium until somebody told me in the dressing-room afterwards. It was nice, sure, but nicer still to get something from Arsenal. We never seem to do well away to them and to come away with a point is a good feeling.

"It does feel like the start of something, for sure. I think the change of manager was needed because we finished sixth in 2004 and were slowly moving down the table each season after that."

There was a time when Mellberg seemed set to leave Villa Park. He did not see eye to eye with David O'Leary and his performances were suffering. It seemed that the only aspect of Mellberg that flourished under O'Leary was the beard, which is now in Karl Marx territory.

But the Mellberg of last Saturday was the Mellberg of 2001-02; winning headers, winning tackles and marking quicker forwards.

O'Neill takes the view that Mellberg might benefit from relinquishing the captaincy.

"I thought he [Mellberg] played really well," O'Neill said. "He and Liam Ridgewell Battling Bears give themselves an outside shot at title were terrific at the back. In fact, everyone was. I'm pleased for him. He's no longer captain of the side, for no reasons, really. He has relieved himself of the national captaincy, too, just to give himself a fresh chance and that is what has happened here at Villa.

"But you know the old cliche about having many captains all over the park? Maybe that is what we had. Gareth Barry [new Villa captain] was terrific and so was Olof."

Juan Pablo Angel, the striker, was another who seemed set to leave Villa but O'Neill has given him a feeling of renewal. Angel cut an isolated figure for much of the time but he worked hard and, on one occasion, cleared a corner from inside his own penalty area.

"It was a good point for us," Angel said. "It has been a good start. Everyone was so committed. We were all very pleased with the result. I am enjoying my football. We defended a lot but we created a few chances, too. There were a few moments when we had great spells."

Meanwhile, Randy Lerner, the prospective owner of Villa, will adopt "a down-to-earth attitude" in his dealings with the club. The American will acquire the club if, as is expected, shareholders accept his £62.6 million bid. However, he may still face a fight from AV06, a rival consortia.

But I understand that Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, expects Lerner to succeed and that the takeover will occur in weeks, rather than months.

Whenever it happens, Lerner will not use Villa to massage his own ego and he says that the real owners will always be the supporters. He already owns the Cleveland Browns team in the National Football League.

"I'm what you call the custodian," the American said. "There have been plenty of custodians since 1874 [when Villa were founded] and if I can't make it work, I will do what the others did, move on and let someone else try."