Martin O'Neill has hailed the impact made by central defender Richard Dunne at Aston Villa as he prepares to tackle former club Manchester City at Eastlands for the first time since his summer move. Dunne made the £6 million (Dh33.6m) switch to Villa Park after it became apparent the arrivals of Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure meant his first-team involvement would be limited at City.
He quickly tormented his ex- employers by scoring for Villa in a 1-1 draw with City in October. Dunne chose not to celebrate the goal, received a standing ovation from the City fans and can expect a similar reception on Saturday. The Republic Of Ireland international was named in the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Premier League Team of the Year at Sunday's awards. But Dunne's main focus will be in trying to help Villa pip City for a Champions League spot and they are currently level on points with fourth-placed Tottenham although they have played a game more.
O'Neill said: "Richard deserved the reception he got in the game at Villa Park. Manchester City would accept he was brilliant for them over eight or nine years. He became an iconic figure. We are just delighted to have him. "He has made an immediate impact coming here and he has been a really great signing." O'Neill accepts Villa have to win their remaining two games to have a chance of finishing in fourth position.
But he can take confidence from his side having the second best away record in the Premier League after Manchester United. He said: "Self-belief can't be much higher. We have got over the debacle of losing 7-1 at Stamford Bridge [to Chelsea] a month ago, have fought back magnificently and given ourselves a chance. "That is all we could have done from that position we were in. We will go to Manchester City with loads of confidence."
Meanwhile, Roberto Mancini, the City manager, has denied he would be regarded as a failure if the club failed to claim a Champions League spot this season. When Mancini arrived at Eastlands amid a storm of controversy in December, one of the reasons cited for Mark Hughes's dismissal was the club's owners did not believe they were on course for a top-four slot. However, with three games of the campaign remaining, City are now sixth and need to win the clash with Villa to set up a decisive tussle with Tottenham on Wednesday.
On the face of it, Mancini hardly seems to have done any better than Hughes and there has been speculation that if the Italian fails to guide City into fourth spot, another high-profile manager - Jose Mourinho has been mentioned - will be brought in. However, while Mancini accepts he is not in charge of his own destiny, he does not believe he should be regarded as a failure if results do not go City's way.
"No, I don't think I will have failed," he said. "We want to finish fourth. But we have improved a lot in the last five months and we must improve more if we want to be a good team." Mancini also believes he would benefit from having a full pre-season with his players and claimed he expects to be around in the summer to instigate more changes. "When you work with a team in pre-season it is easier to do your job," he said. "I imagine I will still be Manchester City manager. I hope so. I have a contract. I don't decide but I think I will be."
Elsewhere, Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, insists their bid to become an established club in the Premier League will remain on course irrespective of negative headlines and bad publicity. In the past three months, the Potters boss has had to deal with two separate dressing-room leaks, the fall-out from defender Ryan Shawcross' leg-breaking tackle on Aaron Ramsey and players openly showing their frustrations towards him on the pitch.
But Pulis said that, except for one or two rogue elements, everyone at the club was committed to doing all they could to ensure the Potters enjoyed top-flight longevity. "This club has been built on togetherness from the boardroom, through the management staff, to the players to the supporters and that is the way we will remain," he said. "I think we are the only ones in the Premier League who are debt-free and everything is in place.'