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The race for fourth

For much of last season it was Aston Villa who were pushing hard to crack the Premier League's 'big four' and they will be keen to show that they have not been superseded this term by big-spending Manchester City.

• Live on ESPN on Monday from 19.00 UK

Martin O'Neill v Mark Hughes

Aston Villa manager O'Neill has struggled to get consistency from his team this season. A surprise opening day defeat at Villa Park against Wigan Athletic was quickly corrected with a 3-1 win against Liverpool at Anfield but just as the Villans looked ready to kick on they lost again last weekend against a very limited Blackburn Rovers side. But despite those two defeats against teams they would expect to beat, Villa find themselves just three points behind City and can leapfrog the billionaires with a two-goal victory.

O'Neill tends to switch from his preferred 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 formation for the big games; with striker John Carew dropping to the bench and young England stars James Milner and Ashley Young supporting lone forward Gabriel Agbonlahor from wide positions. It worked a treat against Liverpool and in the Midlands derby.

City boss Hughes also likes to pack the midfield but with top scorer Emmanuel Adebayor rested and available again after serving a suspension, striker Carlos Tevez fresh from a two goal match-winning performance against West Ham United and fellow forward Craig Bellamy in the form of his life, the manager has some tough decisions to make.

So far this season the Welshman has invariably got his selection right, winning seven out of eight matches in all competitions. City's only defeat came against Premier League champions Manchester United at Old Trafford, thanks to a 95th-minute winner from Michael Owen, and Hughes' side bounced straight back with victory over Fulham in the Carling Cup.

Hughes, who joined City from Blackburn Rovers in 2008, was under pressure to get his expensively-assembled stars firing right from the start this season and he has done an excellent job thus far.

Richard Dunne v Carlos Tevez

Richard Dunne was voted Manchester City's Player of the Year for 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08 and at the start of this season he was still the club's captain. But once the multi-million pound high-profile defenders started to arrive at Eastlands the Republic of Ireland international was quickly offloaded to Aston Villa. Dunne has a point to prove against his former employers.

As part of a Villa defence that has been reconstructed following the enforced retirement of Martin Laursen and long-term injury to Curtis Davies, the big, powerful and pacy centre half has kept three clean sheets in his first three games. The defence was finally breached when they lost 2-1 at Blackburn. Having served under Hughes since 2008 Dunne will be familiar with the threats he will face from his former club.

Meanwhile, Argentina striker Tevez has quickly become the new poster boy for Manchester City after quitting arch-rivals United to join the Eastlands revolution in the summer and then bad-mouthing his former manager at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson. Fergie once hailed Tevez's ability to score important goals at important times but the United boss has since said he didn't think the 25-year-old striker was worth the £25.5 million fee his owners required to make his two-year loan deal permanent.

At United, Tevez won the Premier League on two occasions, the Carling Cup and the UEFA Champions League and his never say die attitude made him a fans' favourite; but his goal return of just 19 in 63 Premier League appearances was hardly sensational. At City, the striker's stats look like improving, having netted twice, and turned provider on three occasions, in just five games.

Gareth Barry v Fabian Delph

Gareth Barry was Mr Aston Villa. He came through the ranks to become club captain and was only stripped of the armband for the 2008-09 season following a summer dalliance with Liverpool. The move never materialised, but the left-footed England international never sulked and remained the driving force in Villa's midfield last term. However, once City made a move for him in August the transfer went through in double-quick time.

Villa fans could have forgiven their star player for moving to Liverpool to play Champions League football but to move to a club they see as rivals for a top-six league finish didn't go down too well. Worse still for the Villa fans is that Barry hasn't missed a beat since his £12 million switch to Eastlands. He provides a calm and assured presence, with no small measure of creativity, in City's highly-competitive midfield. Just as he is one of the mainstays of Fabio Capello's England, so he is also the lynchpin of Hughes' star-studded side. Of all of City's £118 million worth of summer signings Barry is the most crucial.

Up against the experienced 28-year-old on Monday night will be highly-rated youngster Fabian Delph. With Nigel Reo-Coker out in the cold and Steve Sidwell nursing a thigh injury it's a case of in at the deep end for the former Leeds United player. Delph, brought in to replace Barry, proved to be a very handy box-to-box midfielder for Leeds in League One but the 19-year-old has played just three times in the Premier League and is yet to complete 90 minutes.

The England Under-19 international was tracked by a number of top-flight clubs and obviously has the raw qualities required to develop into a top player, including the all important pace and power, and probably had his best game in an Aston Villa shirt last weekend against Blackburn. Having played 47 games, scoring six goals, for Leeds last season, Monday's match provides a televised platform for Delph to prove he can also cut it in the Premier League.

Gabriel Agbonlahor v Joleon Lescott

This duo are both on the periphery of Fabio Capello's England squad and desperate to impress. Despite scoring four goals in six Premier League games so far this season in-form Agbonlahor is probably furthest away from featuring in the Italian's plans, but a good game against his England rival at Villa Park could push him up the pecking order.

Capello obviously sees something special in the 2009 PFA Young Player of the Year nominee, having last selected him to play for England against Spain in February. At club level the incredibly-pacy striker has established himself as Villa's first choice forward. Emile Heskey and John Carew are left to scrap it out for the support role, and given Agbonlahor's impressive start to the season he could well break his personal record of 13 league goals.

Hoping to stop Agbonlahor will be City's £22 million summer recruit Lescott, who, unlike his opponent, has endured something of an unsettled start to the season. The centre back was part of the Everton defence that shipped six goals against Arsenal in the first game of the season. At the time he was agitating for a transfer to City and the finger of blame for Everton's humiliating defeat was pointed in his direction.

Since arriving at Eastlands Lescott has featured in every game but the Citizens have shipped six league goals in those four matches. Prior to the centre back's arrival City had not conceded a goal. Lescott has undoubted qualities, not least his ability to pop up and score, but now he has to prove he can defend consistently at a high-profile club that desires the Premier League title.


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