BY MAT KENDRICK, STAFF WRITER
Stewart Downing is convinced he has joined a club with Champions League ambitions after backing Aston Villa to mount another top-four challenge.
Villa’s newest recruit is unavailable for a large portion of the season after completing last week’s move from Middlesbrough with a fractured foot.
However, Downing followed the fortunes of Martin O’Neill’s team last season and believes they are capable of challenging the Premier League elite.
“I think the aim should be Champions League,” Downing said. “We were close last season and this time we should try to break up that top four.
“It would be great to have a good run in the Europa League too. I am certainly excited by the season ahead. It’s a big season for us.
“The prospect of playing in Europe was the first thing that came to mind when I heard Villa were interested.
“It’s a strong squad that has pushed for the Champions League before. That was a massive draw for me.”
Villa’s pre-season preparations will continue with a friendly at League One club Colchester at the Weston Homes Community Stadium this evening.
The practice match has been organised as a result of O’Neill’s friendship with U’s boss Paul Lambert who played under the Villa manager at Celtic.
Villa’s senior international contingent of John Carew, Ashley Young, Stiliyan Petrov, Emile Heskey and Brad Guzan reported back for training yesterday after an extended break but are not expected to play any part in tonight’s fixture.
Instead it will be another chance for Villa youngsters, including Barry Bannan, Marcus Albrighton and Andreas Weimann, to stake a claim for first-team football – and the teenagers have the backing of midfielder Steve Sidwell.
“Throughout the course of the game there were changes made and a lot more of them came on and all probably put thoughts in the gaffer’s head for the first match,” Sidwell said.
“But it’s down to them to keep working hard and show what they can do.”
Colchester defender Alan Maybury believes the visit of last season’s sixth-best team in the Premier League will be a useful test for the Essex side.
“The game is a good test, they are good quality opposition so let’s test ourselves and see if we are doing the right things.”
Meanwhile, Swedish striker Marcus Berg, a reported target for Villa, has signed a five-year contract with Hamburg in the German Bundesliga.