Aston Villa manager David O'Leary is looking to James Milner's imminent return to give his side another big confidence boost for Sunday's Premiership derby against Birmingham City at Villa Park.

Sunday's hard-fought draw against West Bromwich Albion, coupled with the failure of Blues and Portsmouth to win the previous day, has lessened fears that Villa might be sucked into the relegation equation.

Had Blues won and Villa lost, Steve Bruce's side could have headed across the city on Sunday with the incentive of knowing that a third win

in four Premiership visits to Villa Park would close the gap to within a point.

While the pressure has eased on Villa, O'Leary is as conscious as anyone that his injury-hit side are stretched to the limit before the second leg of their eight-day derby examination. In the wake of Sunday's latest casualty, Lee Hendrie, he needs Milner back with some urgency.

But, having dismissed reports that the strength-sapping illness which has kept the young winger out for six games was 'glandular fever', the Villa manager is counting the days to having Milner back in action.

"He's been for tests," O'Leary said. "And we're hoping he can resume training and hopefully be pointed in

the direction of playing against Birmingham City.

"Knowing the boy from a kid he is generally very fit and within a few days he's up and running. But we've got to watch how we train him.

"The specialist said the boy needed rest and to allow the virus to settle down. And we've had to keep him away from the training ground because, if he came in and put on his kit the next thing is you'd see him on one of the bikes in the gym or on the treadmill.

"He's a bit of a freak. And, if anyone can do it he can. But that's the way you want him because he is a fantastic boy."

O'Leary has also made it clear that the on-loan Newcastle United winger's illness

will not alter his plans to try to make him a permanent addition to the squad in May.

"The lads need a boost after

the Eirik Bakke thing," O'Leary said. "And, if we do get him, the important thing will be to go and get other players on top of that."

As for the rest of O'Leary's long list of absentees, he must wait until the players report for training tomorrow morn-ing before he can make any proper assessments.

Top of that list is skipper Olof Mellberg's hamstring condition, after three matches out. But Hendrie looks a doubt after the hefty challenge by Albion left-back Paul Robinson that left him with a stud wound in his foot.

O'Leary is at least confident of having Juan Pablo Angel and Jlloyd Samuel in contention after the pair succumbed to the same stomach complaint. Given that Milan

Baros was not on full fire power following his own three-match absence, Angel's loss was particularly felt. But O'Leary pointed out that he had little choice.

"Juan was ill the previous day," he said. "And again on the morning and I thought I can't take any chances with anyone who's sick."

As for Baros, the Czech Republic international has timed his return to action following his ankle injury.

He will obviously be looking to use Villa's final five games to sharpen hnimself up for this summer's World Cup finals in Germany.

But top of the immediate agenda for O'Leary is the part Baros can play in securing the final few points Villa need to assure themselves of

Premiership safety. We've got to get him fitter," O'Leary said.

"We were a bit worried, having lost Angel, of the shortage it left on the bench.

"We've had to throw Milan back in there a bit but that game will stand him in good stead." n Two local youngsters have been included in Northern Ireland's Under-21 squad to face Liechtenstein in a European Championship qualifier tomorrow night.

Young Aston Villa midfielder Jamie Ward, currently out on loan at Stockport County, is joined in the squad by Wolves reserve striker Thomas Stewart, and former Molineux midfielder Sammy Clingan, who is with Nottingham Forest.