Martin O’Neill has underlined the importance of an Easter Sunday resurrection after admitting Aston Villa can feel challengers Everton breathing down their necks.
Villa, who hold a slender one point advantage over the Toffees risk not only missing out on the top four but also losing fifth spot if their present slump continues.
A run of six Premier League fixtures without a win, yielding only one draw and including four successive defeats has hampered Villa’s Champions League bid.
With just seven matches remaining, Villa are running out of time to mount a challenge to Arsenal who have assumed fourth place with a six-point cushion.
O’Neill insists there is no possibility of his players underestimating the significance of Sunday’s Villa Park fixture against David Moyes’ Merseysiders.
“It really is absolutely vital for both clubs really,” admitted O’Neill.
“Everton are really breathing down our necks.
“They think themselves, it has been reported, that they can finish fourth in the league this season.
“That makes you realise that our own Champions League ambitions are not too far wide of the mark.”
Since losing to Everton in the FA Cup fifth round in February, Villa’s season seems to have undergone a process of spontaneous combustion.
Last weekend’s cruel 3-2 defeat at Manchester United extended Villa’s winless run in all competitions to nine matches, including seven defeats, a sequence which has also seen them exit the Uefa Cup and tumble out of the top four.
With Premier League games still to follow after this weekend away at Bolton Wanderers, Middlesbrough and Fulham and at home to West Ham United, Hull City and Newcastle United, the manager feels the time to address the decline is long overdue.
“We just can’t let things drift any further,” said O’Neill, who has challenged Villa to improve their poor home form in Sunday’s televised game.
“We now have to go and win some games. There is no point in doing much talking about it – it’s just a massive game. We just have to go out and try to win it. It won’t be easy but we really need to get back on track.
“We haven’t been able to win games from good positions at Villa Park in recent weeks and we haven’t been able to pull games out of the fire either, but it’s up to us now.”
Villa were impressive in defeat at Old Trafford last Sunday and only succumbed to a stoppage time winner from United after coming from behind to lead against Sir Alex Ferguson’s title contenders.
O’Neill took great encouragement from the performance, if not the result, and believes Villa can still compete in the contest for the top four if they can regularly replicate the same sort of spirit.
“The performance at Old Trafford was absolutely terrific,” added O’Neill.
“We went out and played like we had won the previous five games.
“We now have to take that performance on and turn it into a victory.
“There are still masses to play for, plenty can happen, and there will be twists and turns before this season is up.”
Supporters attending Sunday’s game are reminded that the Villa Village store will be closed because of Easter trading restrictions, although all other merchandising units around the ground will be open as usual.
Villa have announced that their scheduled fixture at home to Hull on Saturday May 2 has now been put back to Monday May 2 at 8pm and will be televised live on Sky Sports.