Thursday, July 24, 2008

Martin O'Neill Would Be Wise To Play Barry This Weekend

In one of my recent poll questions, which you can find on the left-hand side of the homepage underneath the blog archive, I asked which story you believed to be the biggest so far this summer. One of the choices was Gareth Barry and his desire to leave Aston Villa for Liverpool, and although I can't remember the exact number, it got its fair share of votes.

Villa is a club on the rise, with young but underappreciated stars in Ashley Young (I can't emphasize enough just how high I am on him), and Gabriel Agbonlahor, and some very useful players like John Carew, Nigel Reo-Coker, Martin Laursen, and Wilfred Bouma. They had the smallest senior roster in the Premiership last season, but the quality of their young players and middle-aged veterans was enough to surprise many outsiders.

Losing Scott Carson and Olof Mellberg is a tough blow for manager Martin O'Neill, who led this team to a 7th-place finish last year and a place in the Intertoto Cup this summer, but he's already been working the transfer market, bringing in Steve Sidwell from Chelsea and Brad Guzan from Chivas USA. O'Neill is also actively shopping for a right back, and is close to acquiring Brad Friedel from Blackburn if you choose to believe various reports.

Barry is Villa's captain and has spent just over a decade at the club. He has established himself as one of the top central midfielders in the Premiership, catapulting into England's starting lineup alongside Owen Hargreaves in the process. He's also capable of playing left back and on the left in a diamond-shaped midfield, and that kind of versatility is always a plus.

As I'm sure all of you read or heard about a couple weeks ago, Barry was banned from training and club premises by his manager and fined $120,000 (two weeks' salary) basically in response to Barry's public comments regarding his desire to move to Liverpool. Barry has made it fairly clear that he'd like to go to Anfield and play in the Champions League with his good friend, Steven Gerrard, and questioned O'Neill's commitment to bringing in more firepower.

Barry also called O'Neill out right after Euro 2008, saying the manager had time to be a television pundit but not to reach out and communicate with his captain. Liverpool and Villa have been discussing a transfer all summer long, but the two clubs haven't been able to agree on cash valuations or player swaps combined with cash to get the deal done. O'Neill has admitted that although he would like Barry to stay, for the right price, he could leave.

On July 16, though, Barry returned to training, three days before Villa went to Denmark and picked up two critical away goals in a 2-2 draw against Odense BK in the third round of the Intertoto Cup. An obviously unfit Barry didn't play in that game -- Stiliyan Petrov got the start in the holding role behind Steve Sidwell -- but did appear in Villa's friendly victory against Walsall two days ago. He was booed, and maybe rightfully so, by his club's supporters, but played an hour in his effort to work towards full match fitness.

The second leg of the Villa-Odense tie will be played this Saturday in England, with the hosts needing either a victory or a 0-0 or 1-1 draw to advance to the UEFA Cup second qualifying round. O'Neill said today that he was considering playing Barry in the upcoming game:

"I think that in terms of fitness the game on Tuesday will have brought Gareth on, so if he's mentally tuned in and he wants to go and play, why not?

'He will be in contention for Saturday. He's a quality player and that's what we're looking for. I have never not been impressed with him in two years as to his attitude on the football pitch.

'In fairness the Intertoto gives us that chance to get into the UEFA Cup, which we set out to get into by one way or another, and Gareth was a major part of that last year."

He then added:

"Deep down we would all love him to stay at the football club. We haven't heard back from Liverpool for some time and we're not exactly sure where we all stand.

'When people say people are in limbo, I don't think that applies to anybody more than ourselves. We don't know whether to move forward or not with it. It's a long-running saga and I wouldn't mind it ending one way or another.

'My preference - and hopefully I'm speaking for a lot of Villa fans, if not all of them - is that we would like Gareth to stay at the football club. That would be great because it will be hard to replace him."

So, where does that leave us?

O'Neill should insert Barry into the starting eleven for Saturday's match. As the manager, his responsibility is to field the lineup he believes gives the team the best possible chance to get the result. There is no question that Gareth Barry is one of Villa's best players and would immediately bring that cool, savvy demeanor into an otherwise young and inexperienced -- at least in European competition -- team. He links up very well with his wide players, Young and some combination of Nigel Reo-Coker, Shaun Maloney, and even Agbonlahor on occasion, but also takes corner kicks and free kicks from the right side. Villa is deadly off the set piece with Laursen, Carew, and Zat Knight in the air, and Barry's in-swinging balls are always dangerous.

By playing Barry, O'Neill is also forcing Liverpool's hand, saying that unless Rafa Benitez comes up with a satisfactory offer to meet the valuation, Villa simply won't sell and will retain the services of their captain. Liverpool seems to want Barry desperately for some reason (if you go back to early May in the blog archive, you'll see why I don't believe he's a necessary piece to Liverpool's puzzle), so they're going to have make a decision sooner rather than later. The closer we get to the start of the Premiership season, the more Villa can dictate the situation and the more they can raise the desired price.

I think you'll find that as we move forward, the mutual hard feelings between Barry and O'Neill, which seem to be more of disappointment than anything else, will begin to evaporate. If Barry stays at Villa, the fans will eventually welcome back one of their club's most loyal players. They don't seem to understand or appreciate that when players want to change teams, it's usually business more than it is personal. Liverpool would be able to pay Barry more and give him a chance to compete in the Champions League, but that doesn't mean Barry has lost his love for Villa and his respect for their fans.

Martin O'Neill should bring Gareth Barry back into the fold this weekend. The Birmingham-based club have the ability to break into the top four with just a couple more impact signings, definitely at right back and possibly at right wing, and need a bit more depth. They have the talent right now to be a serious contender in the UEFA Cup. I believe Barry will get his wish to play in the Champions League at some point, and possibly next season for Villa if he stays where he is now.

It all starts on Saturday, though, and I'm extremely interested to see whether or not the skipper is leading the team out of the tunnel.

Update (07/26 -- Noon): Barry is amongst the substitutes named by Martin O'Neill. He's opted to use the same starting lineup that drew 2-2 last week.

Update #2 (12:30 PM): Barry is coming on after a horrific-looking ankle injury to Wilfred Bouma. Barry presumably will go to left back, showing the versatility I mentioned earlier in this post.

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