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Michael Taylor 17th Apr 2010 - 11:17

Tired Villa still too strong for pitiful Pompey

Martin O'Neill has undoubtedly been a blessing for Aston Villa since his arrival in 2006, turning the club from perennial under achievers to regular Champions League contenders, however it isn't all onwards and upwards for the Villains.

In fact at this stage of every season they don't just narrowly fail they completely implode as their thread bare squad constantly gets exposed while teams around them get down to business.

A slight improvement has been made this time around thanks to a win at Wigan on the 16 March - the first in that month since O'Neill's arrival - however every Villa fan would agree that their end of season form is simply not good enough.

Fortunately though, this Sunday they have the best chance possible to get back to winning ways when they travel to already relegated Portsmouth.

Avram Grant was criticised in mid-week for fielding a weakened side in Pompey's 0-0 draw with Wigan, but let's face it who can blame him after masterminding one of the most unlikely FA Cup final runs of all time.

Their stay in the Premier League realistically came to an end as soon as administration struck and you better believe that every single player will have one eye on Wembley from this point on.

Grant will try to instil into his players the belief that every shirt is still up for grabs when they meet Chelsea in May but from a betting point of view you have to be wary when they have nothing to play for.

Villa may be in a similar situation in terms of having little left to fight for in the season but, if their last gasp equaliser against Everton proved on Wednesday, they are not willing to give in especially when results are proving so hard to come by.

They also have pretty much a clean bill of health with potential World Cup squad member Stephen Warnock the only doubt for the boss - something which Pompey certainly can't boast.

Nadir Belhadj, Tal Ben Haim, Jamie O'Hara and Aruna Dindane are unavailable while regular first teamers Kevin Prince Boateng, David James, Aaron Mokoena, Ricardo Rocha and Hassan Yebda are all struggling to be ready in time.

It's a pretty bleak list for a team that's faring just as badly in the league and it would seem the only thing that can save them from a loss at Fratton Park is some more of Grant's masterful organisation.

If Michael Brown can quell Stillian Petrov's influence in the centre of the park and youngsters like Joel Ward and Matt Richie can build on solid mid-week outings then I doubt Villa will run riot - I do however think they'll win fairly comfortably.

Gabriel Agbonlahor will have been buoyed by his key strike against Everton, his first in nine games, while John Carew could have a field day if his recent record against 'weaker' teams is anything to go by (he has netted in recent games against Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Reading).

If you fancy both strikers to score you can get 3/1 (anytime goalscorers doubled), however I'd favour Carew to be the leading man and would be my pick at evens to score anytime or 4/1 to grab the first of the game.

In terms of how the actual match will pan out I think you could be looking at a kind of cat v mouse scenario with Portsmouth starting defensively in the hope they can cut off the excellent supply the front men get from James Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young.

Grant's tactics held him in good stead against Tottenham and Wigan as they kept two clean sheets in the process, this could be just a little step too far even if Villa can't compare to their early season form.

And with Pompey lacking up front and the Villains holding one of the strongest defences in the Premier League (barring the two recent routs by Chelsea) I struggle to see where the home goals will come from.

It all makes a 'to nil' scoreline in Villa's favour look a strong looking bet with 2-0 maybe sticking out at 6/1 - while I firmly believe the 8/13 about an away win is an absolute banker.



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