Aston Villa travel to White Hart Lane today knowing that the Premiership match away to Tottenham Hotspur is pivotal.

While Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, denies suggestions that the Christmas period could define his season, he knows that the good work of autumn could be undone if results do not improve.

No victories in Villa's last seven matches is relegation form. Fortunately, Villa are better than their results suggest and they did begin the season well.

The similarities between Villa and Tottenham are striking. Both represent big cities, both have under-achieved over the past generation, but both seem to be giving cause for optimism.

There is a difference, too, and that will be more significant when the teams meet. Whereas Villa began the season well and have since faded, Tottenham began the season badly and have improved.

Villa, who lost 3-0 at home to Manchester United on Saturday, have not won since early November when Chris Sutton's goal, a brilliant glancing header, ensured three points at Everton.

The irony is that Villa are playing better now than they were when they were winning matches and flirting with the top five.

"Just because we have not won since the Everton match does not mean we will go to Tottenham with a lack of confidence," Juan Pablo Angel, the Villa striker, said.

Angel was a late substitute against United and is likely to be in the starting line-up at White Hart Lane.

United won because of a second-half blitz - Cristiano Ronaldo (two) and Paul Scholes scored the goals - but Villa were the better team until a mistake by Aaron Hughes paved the way for the first goal.

Villa are facing their most difficult period of the season. White Hart Lane has never been an easy place at which to play while there are also matches at home to Chelsea (January 2) and away to Manchester United (January 13).

Only the match away to Charlton Athletic, on Saturday, will see Villa as favourites to win.

On the face of it, a draw against Tottenham would be a good result, especially as they have a squad far better than their league position of seventh suggests.

O'Neill knows that but also knows that his team are capable of impressive performances.

It is the lack of goals that is causing problems for Villa.

"You always felt Tottenham had the squad capabilities to hit form," O'Neill said. "The early disappointments were probably coming from the fact that they had finished so well last year but were pipped for a Champions' League spot.

"That disappointment just doesn't suddenly leave you when you end the season and come back into pre-season. It was a blow to them having been pipped on the last day of the season.

"But, with the players that have come into the club, they have tried to get themselves into that elite band of teams and they should be given credit for doing that.

"Some have made a big impact and others haven't. But it hasn't deterred them.

"The manager [Martin Jol] has had a look at things for the last couple of seasons, realised what it takes to break into that top group, and Tottenham have backed him.

"The competition for places they have is always a healthy sign at a football club.

"We don't have that at the minute but you hope that will happen in the not too distant future."

Angel remains optimistic for the immediate future and knows, from painful experience, that the Premiership is a rollercoaster ride.

If Villa are failing to meet expectations at the moment, that is only because they increased those expectations in the first place.

He said: "We have to take positives out of the games because we are playing well in patches but it's all about results at the end of the day.

"If you want to be up there, you've got to be getting the results, got to win games.

"We've got Tottenham to focus on now and we have to take one game at a time. I'll just keep the same attitude I've had all the season and if the manager selects the team and I'm in then I'll be delighted.

"Tottenham had a great season last season and although they didn't have a good start this season they're on a good run now.

"It's going to be difficult, as it always is at White Hart Lane, but we've got to go and compete, be confident, take the good form in with us and hopefully we'll get something out of the game."

O'Neill will assess the fitness of Gavin McCann, the midfield player, before choosing his team.

McCann passed a late fitness on a hamstring problem and played against United but was substituted in the second half as a precaution.

Angel is likely to earn a recall up front as two games in the space of 72 hours could prove beyond Sutton, who still looks short of full match fitness.