Martin O’Neill has excused his most influential players from UEFA Cup duty in Hamburg this evening because the Aston Villa manager deems Saturday’s Premier League visit to West Ham United more important.
Villa arrived in Germany without five of O’Neill’s automatic starters yesterday afternoon while six youngsters from the club’s academy have made the trip for the final Group F game at the HSH Nordbank Arena.
The high-profile absentees are Martin Laursen, Gareth Barry, Ashley Young, James Milner and Gabriel Agbonlahor, who have remained at home to rest ahead of Saturday’s Premier League visit to Upton Park.
Teenager Nathan Delfouneso, who capped his full debut by scoring in Villa’s last UEFA Cup tie – a surprise 2-1 home defeat to MSK Zilina – is included in Villa’s 20-man squad to face the Bundesliga team at 7.45pm.
He is joined by fellow youth team players Barry Bannan, Shane Lowry, Chris Herd, Ciaran Clark and Zoltan Stieber.
With Villa already guaranteed their place in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup in February, O’Neill prefers to rest his star names rather than risk them being injured when their league campaign resumes on Saturday.
Villa will be third in the table at Christmas if they win at West Ham and the manager admits he is conscious of keeping players fresh for the festive fixtures.
“It would have been a different matter had we not qualified already,” said O’Neill.
“I know there are advantages from finishing first or second in the group because you then get the home leg second in the last 32.
“I still hope the team we play will be strong enough to get a result and I
hope we can repeat the performance we put in against Slavia Prague when I also made changes.
“But it is a fact that we have got a hectic Christmas programme coming up. It is not quite as severe as other years but is still physically very demanding and some of our players have not had a break. Gareth Barry certainly falls into that category with the number of games he has played.”
O’Neill’s rotation policy was called into question when an under-strength Villa team were embarrassed by Slovakian minnows Zilina after the manager made eight changes.
However, earlier victories over Ajax and Slavia Prague were enough to see Villa through to the knock-out stages, prompting O’Neill to continue with fringe players this evening.
Brad Guzan, Zat Knight, Nicky Shorey, Moustapha Salifou, Nigel Reo-Coker, Marlon Harewood and Delfouneso are under consideration to start against Hamburg.
O’Neill is looking forward to tonight’s reunion with Hamburg manager Martin Jol and admits he has a lot of respect for the Dutchman for his work at Tottenham Hotspur.
“He was very unlucky to lose his job at Tottenham considering they went so close to pipping Arsenal one year for fourth place,” added O’Neill.
“They actually finished fifth two seasons running. Martin was doing well, but then one season the team did not make the best of starts, but I am sure he would have turned it around.
“He was very unlucky and he is very highly regarded in England.”