Sunday 18 March 2018

MacDonald insists Ireland arrival a great boost for Villa

Stephen Ireland. Photo: Getty Images
Stephen Ireland. Photo: Getty Images

Phil Shaw

Kevin Macdonald hailed the signing of Stephen Ireland last night as a "great boost" for Aston Villa, though the £8m makeweight in James Milner's £24m move to Manchester City will not be eligible for tonight's Europa League mission against Rapid Vienna in the Austrian capital.

MacDonald, in temporary charge of Villa since Martin O'Neill's resignation a week last Monday, worked with the player during his stint as senior coach with Ireland when Steve Staunton was manager. The midfielder will be 24 on Sunday, when Villa visit Newcastle United in the Premier League.

"James and Stephen are different kinds of players," said MacDonald. "James has strength and power all round the pitch whereas Stephen is a very gifted, inventive player, who probably links the play more. It's sad to see James go, but it's a great boost that Stephen's coming in and will be registered in time for the second leg next Thursday." Milner has signed a five-year deal with City.

Exactly a year ago, O'Neill's side lost 1-0 to Rapid in the Gerhard Hanappi Stadium. With 14 minutes of the return fixture remaining, they led 2-0 and appeared to be on their way through, only for Nikica Jelavic to dump them out with an away goal. Jelavic again lies in wait, with four goals this season, including two in Rapid's win over Bulgaria's Stara Zagora in the previous round.

MacDonald plans to turn to his fringe players, several of whom he has worked with during his decade and a half with Villa, to keep key men fresh for the trip to Tyneside. In that respect, he will follow the precedent set by O'Neill. Most notoriously, O'Neill fielded a reserve team away to CSKA Moscow in the Uefa Cup of 2008-09, in the hope of sparing the senior players who were then chasing a Champions League place. Villa went out after a 2-0 defeat. Twelve months ago, O'Neill used a clutch of reserves at home to Rapid and again paid a price.

"It's a very big game," MacDonald said, going on to make it clear that the Europa League, at least at this stage, nevertheless comes below the Premier League in the club's priorities. "Villa have a big reputation in Europe, and this is a very important competition for squad players and for trying to develop youngsters."

Among those likely to see first-team action this evening are Emile Heskey, Curtis Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker, Habib Beye and Nathan Delfouneso. However, Villa may not risk Gabriel Agbonlahor, Carlos Cuellar or James Collins.

Rapid Vienna v Aston Villa,

Live, ITV 4, 5.45

Irish Independent

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