Kevin Phillips is set to end his Aston Villa career, with West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland fighting to sign the former England international striker.

Phillips, who joined Villa from Southampton last summer, was last night in talks with Sunderland with a view to making a return to the Stadium of Light. However, Albion are in need of a proven striker and Phillips, who has scored 166 league goals in a career that began in 1994, fits the bill.

Wherever Phillips goes - and Sunderland appear to be the favourites - it will be on a free transfer. Aged 33, Phillips began his Villa career well but a succession of injuries diminished his effect. His departure has been inevitable since the arrival as manager of Martin O'Neill.

O'Neill's priority, however, is signing players rather than letting them go. With that in mind, Didier Agathe has been handed the chance to revive his career and become the first player to be signed by O'Neill for Villa.

The 31-year-old utility player, who was part of the Celtic team that lost in the 2003 Uefa Cup final to Porto, has started a trial period with Villa and could sign a short-term contract if he impresses O'Neill.

It was O'Neill who signed Agathe for Celtic from Hibernian in 2000. However, the player has been without a club since being released from Celtic three months ago. He has not played a competitive match since last November.

Agathe, a Frenchman, has been on trial with Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers so far this year but did not impress enough at either club to secure a deal. But if any manager can bring the best out of Agathe it is O'Neill.

Whatever happens, O'Neill will be working furiously to ensure that Villa make at least one new signing before the transfer window closes on August 31. To complicate matters, Randy Lerner's proposed takeover of the club is unlikely to be confirmed until

next month. I understand that Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, expects Lerner to be success-ful, despite an expected counter offer from a consortium called AV06.

All indications point to victory for Lerner. The Villa share price has remained stable, at around 540 pence, indicating that the market favours Lerner. He has offered 547 per share. If the market expected the AV06 consortium to succeed, the share price would already have surpassed the 600 pence mark.

But these are peripherals as far as O'Neill is concerned. He has made it clear that he intends to supplement his squad, even though the team performed superbly to draw 1-1 away to Arsenal last Saturday.

O'Neill appears to want a central-midfield player [2014] Stilian Petrov and Thomas Gravesen are believed to be targets [2014] yet two of Villa's best players against Arsenal were Gavin McCann and Gareth Barry in the centre of the field. O'Neill has nine days left.

Celtic want to sign Gravesen from Real Madrid and want to keep Petrov. Portsmouth want to sign Petrov and have made a third bid, this time believed to be £7million. Gravesen's wages, believed to be £2.2million a year with Real, could be prohibitive.

But even if O'Neill fails to make a new signing, auguries are good. The performance against Arsenal gave every indication that Villa can feel confident of fighting for a place in Europe, rather than avoiding relegation. Villa play at home to Reading tomorrow night.