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O'Neill blames fixture pile-up for Villa's injury woes

Martin O'Neill admits Aston Villa's hectic fixture list is taking its toll as he sweats on the fitness of a quartet of key players ahead of Saturday's clash at Chelsea.

Leading scorer Gabriel Agbonlahor is already sidelined with a foot injury that has ruled him out of the last two matches after he had previously been suffering with a groin strain.

But now fellow striker Emile Heskey, midfielder James Milner and central defender Richard Dunne are all to have scans to determine the extent of their Achilles tendon injuries. Heskey and Milner had to be substituted during last night's 1-1 home draw with revitalised Sunderland -- another dent to Villa's hopes of securing a Champions League spot.

The weekend encounter at Stamford Bridge will be Villa's fifth game in 15 days and O'Neill may be forced to make changes after keeping faith with the same group of players in recent weeks.

O'Neill said: "Gabby is improving daily but I don't know if he will be ready for Saturday. He might be and we'll see where we are.

"Emile came off with an Achilles problem.

"James did well to play for as long as he did in the game. He was sore beforehand but, psychologically, I wanted him on the field.

"He was prepared to play. He wasn't going to exacerbate things greatly other than playing through a bit of pain, which he's done.

"I'm delighted with him but his Achilles is very sore.

"They're all going for scans, Richard Dunne also. It's down to the number of games we've played."

O'Neill believes the race for fourth spot is wide open, especially with Manchester City losing at home to Everton last night. He said: "We were disappointed in the dressing room but the Man City result keeps us still there and it is going to be really tight."

Sunderland have now taken nine points from five games to ease their relegation fears, although last night Fraizer Campbell's goal was cancelled out by Villa striker John Carew's 14th of the season.

Black Cats boss Steve Bruce said: "We've played quite well of late and proved it again at Villa.

"We've been a bit more settled with our big players playing and obviously that's made a difference.

"We've lost one in nine, which was to Arsenal, so we've hit a bit of form."

Bruce admitted: "It's been a tough winter. We've had many players missing with injury."