Aston Villa are hopeful of having Aaron Hughes back to face Manchester City next Tuesday after they denied that the Northern Ireland international defender's season is over.

There were fears that Hughes, having limped out of Tuesday's 3-2 defeat at Wigan Athletic, might miss Villa's final three games but a Villa spokesman last night said: "A

scan has confirmed that there is actually no ligament damage. It's nothing more than bruising and we're hoping that a few days' rest will ease the problem.

"He certainly should play again before the end of the season and we wouldn't rule him out against Manchester City."

If Hughes, who also has an end-of-season trip to the United States to look forward to with the Northern Ireland squad, fails to recover, at least boss David O'Leary is not short on options.

With Wilfred Bouma fit again after the illness that kept him sidelined over Easter, O'Leary can recall the Dutchman and switch Jlloyd Samuel to right-back, or give another chance to Ulises De la Cruz, Hughes' second-half replacement at the JJB Stadium.

With South American De la Cruz's contract due to expire at the end of this season, it would not be a bad time to put him in the shop window. And, with less than two months to go before his scheduled appearance for Ecuador in the World Cup finals, De la Cruz is itching to play.

After a five-month absence between the home defeat to Middlesbrough in October and his appearance as a first-half substitute for the injured Samuel against Portsmouth in March, De la Cruz had become one of Villa's forgotten foreigners.

But he has now been part of an injury-hit squad for the past five matches, making his only start of the season against Fulham, as well as earning two more appearances as a second-half substitute.

"I have been more involved and that is good," he said. "It has been great to play again, not just for my confidence but to warm up for Germany."

But De la Cruz, who was signed by Graham Taylor for #1.5 million from Hibernian in August 2002, is very well aware that his time at Villa Park may be coming to an end.

"I like Villa," he said. "I like the place and I like the people but I need to be playing football.

"I like to play every week. and, although I respect the decision of the manager not to play me, it is difficult when I have not been involved for such a long time but I have long ago realised that my future will be sorted out in the summer.

"I expect to speak with the manager in the next couple of weeks, when a decision will be made about what happens next but I will not think about the World Cup until the season is over."