Accusations that Aston Villa lack ambition have been levelled at the club and its hierarchy for so long that it seems impossible to determine in which direction they are heading.

Only three days before the embarrassing 4-0 defeat at West Ham United, David O'Leary, the Villa manager, had again got out the map of Europe. Fuelled by significant financial backing in the summer transfer market, O'Leary cheerfully talked up his team's European chances.

Based on the 1-0 defeat of Blackburn Rovers in their previous match - their first at Villa Park since March - the optimism seemed justified. Europe, it seemed to many observers, was not beyond O'Leary's horizon.

But, after his side's dismal defeat at Upton Park on Monday, even the Villa boss was heard scoffing scornfully at the suggestion that his side should be considered Champions' League contenders.

So where exactly in Europe are Villa heading? What are their ambitions?

One minute they're bound for Europe, according to the manager, yet only one game later, they're back on the road to nowhere.

When Villa ended last season in decline, fading out of European contention with an untimely run and a disappointing haul of two points from a possible 15, O'Leary's response was impressive.

As promised, he disappeared into the shadows for the summer, leaving only his shopping list which, in the absence of chairman Doug

Ellis, was attended to with impressive efficiency by operations director Steve Stride.

Aaron Hughes, Stuart Taylor, Kevin Philips and Patrik Berger were all brought in.

The glamour signing of #6 million man Milan Baros was to follow by the end of August. Although it must be set against the loss of Nolberto Solano to Newcastle, there was still time before the deadline to sneak Freddie Bouma, James Milner and Eirik Bakke through the Trinity Road front door.

Admittedly, Berger has not been able to play because of injury - he was substituted after 71 minutes of last night's 1-1 draw against Manchester City reserves - and Bakke is not yet available but the rest were all there at Upton Park. Yet the result was not pretty.

Of course, the loss at West Ham may prove to be a oneoff; an ugly blot hardly in keeping with all the promise Villa had shown 16 days before when Baros scored on his debut.

But, when they play against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, they will have some convincing to do.

Wasn't it football pundit Andy Gray, a man with real European pedigree and a Villa legend, who ruffled feathers when he wrote off O'Leary's men on the eve of the season?

It is time for Villa's players to stand up and be counted and prove Gray wrong.

"We're playing a team at the weekend who will not be far off Champions' League," said O'Leary, of the forthcoming Spurs game. "They've spent big and brought quality.

"We went down there with a similar attitude in May and got beat 5-1 and we've got to be a lot better than that."

Of West Ham he said: "The better side won by a mile. West Ham played the way I want to play.

"They outmuscled us and did to us what we try to do to other teams. They had hunger and tempo right from the start.

"Even before they scored, I was not content on the bench. I was thinking 'We're not right here'.

"We're a passing team who didn't pass it well enough and the goals we gave away were dreadful but my players are an honest enough bunch. Hopefully, this was a big wake-up call. We've now got to all stick together."

Stick together for what, exactly? Are Villa, who have won only one of their last ten Premiership games, seeing out the rest of this season intent on damage limitation? Avoiding relegation? Finishing in the top ten? Ending up top dogs in the Midlands again? Or, like the rest of O'Leary's rivals, should his sights be higher?

A Uefa Cup place or maybe even finishing fourth in the Premier League would earn Villa the riches of the Champions' League, just as it did for Everton - another supposed team of no-hopers - four months ago,

O'Leary, it seems, remains as confused as the rest of us.

When it was suggested, on Monday night, that surely his side must have started out this season with some sort of Champions' League pretensions his response was brief, loaded with contempt and delivered with a cold, withering look at the journalist who had posed the question.

"Us, going for the Champions' League?" spat back O'Leary, staring into space.

Another question might have been asked. If Villa didn't really aspire to a Champions' League place this season, how on earth did O'Leary sell this club to Baros?