Martin O'Neill believes Aston Villa are seeing the best of central defender Carlos Cuellar after he followed skipper Stiliyan Petrov by taking time to adjust from Scottish football to the Barclays Premier League.

Petrov was O'Neill's first signing as Villa boss in a #6million switch from Celtic and it was two seasons before he demonstrated his full potential.

Cuellar was bought from Rangers for #5million in the summer of 2008 and he failed to do himself justice last season and often played out of position at right-back.

But the Spaniard, who is hoping to force his way into his country's World Cup squad, has been a vastly improved performer during the current campaign and helped Villa into the top four ahead of Saturday's home clash with Stoke.

O'Neill told Press Association Sport: "People ask if there are comparisons between Carlos and Stiliyan in taking time to adapt from Scottish football and that would probably be a fair point.

"Last season Carlos came to us having had no pre-season whatsoever because of having been stop-start with injuries up at Rangers.

"He played a lot of games for us at right-back last season as well, especially when Luke (Young) was out injured towards the end of the season.

"But he never complained and got on with it. He has adjusted and got used to the pace of the Premier League. Now we are seeing the best of him.

"He has gone into the middle of defence in recent weeks, with James Collins having been injured, which is his real position, and he is playing terrifically for us."

O'Neill, who has no fresh injury worries ahead of the Potters clash, admits the next few weeks will play a key part in determining Villa's fortunes this season.

They have league meetings with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium and a home clash with Liverpool plus a Carling Cup semi-final with Blackburn in early January.

He said: "When we beat Blackburn in February last season, we had got to 51 points from 25 games and that was fantastic. We've got a bit of a distance to go to get there.

"But the games we've got coming up between now and the new year are big matches plus a couple of semi-final legs to look forward to in January.

"These games will give us a pointer to what the second half of the season holds.

"I'm not so sure this season is mirroring last season in the sense of we won seven successive away games, which by any stretch of the imagination is fantastic, and to emulate that this season would be very difficult.

"But we knew we could try and improve our home record and so far - and I stress so far - it is better than last season."

Stoke defender Robert Huth is suspended for the short trip to Villa Park having accumulated five cautions, his absence could mean Andy Wilkinson reverts to right-back with Danny Collins coming in on the left.

Stoke manager Tony Pulis does not expect Villa to make the same mistake they did last season when last-minute goals in their two encounters cost Martin O'Neill's side vital points.

Mamady Sidibe's late strike gave the Potters a 3-2 win in August 2008 and then Glenn Whelan struck in injury time to earn a 2-2 draw at Villa Park in March.

Those results aided Stoke's survival as much as it dented Villa's hopes of challenging for Champions League qualification but Pulis believes his side will face better opponents this time around.

"I hope I am as magnanimous as Martin was after both our games last year," said the Stoke boss, who is an admirer of O'Neill.

"We beat them in the last minute here and scored last minute up there to draw the game.

"That cost them what could have been six points but his demeanour afterwards was absolutely first class - he was a gentleman through and through.

"We did very well last year but they have got a little bit more quality this season.

"This season is not the same situation as they were in last time.

"Then they were in Europe and had lots of games and Martin got caught between what to do and not to do."

Villa's current form has catapulted them into fourth place and Pulis insists they have what it takes to finish the season there.

But for 11th-placed Stoke, Pulis just wants to secure their top-flight future for the second successive season.

"The most important thing for us is staying in the league. I'm not being blase but everyone gets carried away with what we have achieved but we still have to get to 40 points as quickly as possible," he added.

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Topics:
#Mamady Sidibe
#Danny Collins
#Stoke City
#Robert Huth
#Stiliyan Petrov
#Premier League
#Carlos Cuellar
#Andy Wilkinson
#James Collins
#Aston Villa
#Glenn Whelan
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