Martin O’Neill has warned his team against being “flattened” by their lofty league position.
The Aston Villa manager is preparing his side for the crucial Premiership match at Sunderland this weekend in the knowledge that his club are riding as high as at any time in the last decade at this point of the season.
Villa are level on points with Manchester United, trail Chelsea by a single point and are behind leaders Liverpool by only five.
They face Portsmouth, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers before they are next up against one of their competitors near the top of the table when Filipe Scolari’s increasingly-troubled Chelsea are at Villa Park on February 21, days after Villa’s mouth-watering Uefa Cup tie with CSKA Moscow.
There is a feelgood factor running throughout Villa but O’Neill warns that the complexion of the season could change very quickly.
“I can’t pretend that it’s not exciting because it is,” he said. “It’s great to be up there – it’s where you want to be. And it’s where the players want to be. If you want to be contesting things, you’ve got to be up there.
“It’s great and I am delighted we are where we are. There is a genuine excitement in and around the place, no doubt. But I think the players realise – whatever experience they have gathered from this league – that it can flatten you as quickly as it can raise you up.
“We are enjoying this season and we are certainly enjoying the
momentum we have but it can come to a halt at any given time.
“The great thing is that the players are level-headed and they are not getting too carried away with it all.”
O’Neill faces some intriguing selection dilemmas before the match at the Stadium of Light where Villa have performed well in recent years.
They have lost on only one of their last five visits, to David Bellion’s late goal in September 2002.
The return of Carlos Cuellar to fitness and a desire to keep Zat Knight on his toes could allow him to wrap Martin Laursen in cotton wool.
Laursen was a shock starter against West Bromwich Albion after missing three games but was far from his best.
At the same time the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker and Luke Young have continued to impress while playing out of position.
O’Neill says that his squad will have to remain flexible when it comes to him selecting his team. He said: “The players, at this minute, are going to have to play out of position – that’s the nature of it. A lot of players have done that this season – and last season too.
“It shouldn’t be an unusual thing because I believe the more positions you can play in, the better-equipped you are as a footballer. Throughout the game, you’re obviously going to get players playing out of position and it is a big help to the team.
“I think it improves the lads as players too – unquestionably.”