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Fight for fourth wide open

Martin O'Neill dropped to his haunches at the final whistle, while Rafa Benitez strode onto the pitch portraying the emotions of relief and jubilation that signalled one of the most vital wins of Liverpool's traumatic season at Villa Park.

• Harry Harris on Aston Villa

O'Neill is an outstanding manager, one with the credentials to eventually land an even bigger job than the one at Villa. He is England material and has only just lost out in the race a couple of times recently. He is also an outside bet to replace Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.

But he now faces one of the biggest challenges of his managerial career, and that is to get Villa back on track for a place in the Champions League after this devastating defeat following Fernando Torres' late strike.

The contrast between a dejected O'Neill and an elated Benitez couldn't have been more obvious, but the real winners in the quest for a place in the top four were Spurs and Manchester City.

O'Neill's team have looked impressive in their determination to make it into the Champions League, apart from their two recent defeats by Arsenal and Liverpool, and their confidence will have been rocked. Last season, it was the second half of the season that derailed their challenge and there are worrying signs once more.

Knowing O'Neill, though, he will not allow Villa to collapse after working their way into such a commanding position in the table again. In a tight race, the big danger for Villa's aspirations are Spurs and City, more so than Liverpool, who still have a long haul to regain stability and some semblance of normality after crashing out of the Champions league in the group stage and struggling for form in the league. Defeat against the Reds is not the end.

That said, after forcing Pepe Reina into some stunning saves, this defeat was a cruel one for Villa. The look on O'Neill's face summed it all up at the final whistle, so one can imagine how his players were feeling in the dressing room.

''A setback, not the end of the world'', commented O'Neill, and he promised that they would fight back; indeed, he will work even harder to ensure that they do.

Wigan away and West Ham at home in the league (with a Carling Cup semi-final first leg in between) will split opinion over what is most important. O'Neill would like both, of course, but given a choice, Villa need to be in the Champions League to further their ambitions.

It would be a massive consolation if O'Neill could bring some silverware to Villa Park, and, at the moment, the chances of winning the League Cup are greater than seeing off the challenge of others in the league. But he should not be too disheartened by recent defeats; the top four is a tough club to break into and he can take plenty of positives from the performance against Rafa's side.

While this looks to be one of the most open title races in recent memory, the result has ensured that the fight for fourth is also now wide open. A resurgent Liverpool may have the best squad available, but one feels that with only four points separating them from Tottenham, there are a lot more twists and turns in the road ahead.


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