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Football: O'Neill on trail of Serb giant Zigic as Carew stays upbeat; PREMIER LEAGUE.

Aston Villa were last night linked with interest in giant Serbian striker Nikola Zigic as Martin O'Neill prepares his squad for the big Intertoto return at Villa Park this weekend.

Zigic, who stands 6ft 7in, is said to be on the radar at Villa Park after reports from Spain yesterday which claimed that new Valencia coach Unai Emery had told the giant centreforward that he no longer featured in his plans at La Mestalla.

The Serbian international has long been linked with reports of a move to England and Valencia's sporting director Juan Sanchez moved that interest on last night by claiming that Villa had made an offer for the former Racing Santander star with the player set to mull over his options and return with an answer in the next couple of days.

Villa already have big Norwegian striker John Carew and home-grown star Gabby Agbonlahor as well as Shaun Maloney available to play up front but O'Neill is known to be looking to strengthen his squad in all areas ahead of what he hopes will be a successful Uefa Cup run with Villa this season and the chance of closing the gap still further on the top four Premier League sides.

Valencia director Juan Sanchez said: "The player and his agent know about the offer and we expect them to make a decision in the coming days."

Carew himself, meanwhile, has assured supporters Villa will get it right on Saturday evening when they entertain Odense Boldklub at Villa Park in a 5.15pm kick-off.

A bumper crowd is expected for the return leg of the competition with a win ensuring the victor a place in the next stage of the Uefa Cup.

Carew opened the scoring against the Danish Superliga side after only seven minutes on Saturday but Villa twice lost their lead - first when a calamitous Steve Sidwell own goal cancelled out Carew's effort and then Odense's Moller Christensen slammed home an injury time equaliser after Villa's own Great Dane Martin Laursen looked to have given Villa the edge.

Carew himself played at Valencia between 2001-2004, featuring in the 2001 Champions League final for the Spaniards who ultimately lost on penalties.

Carew, who joined Villa in January 2007 in an exchange deal for Milan Baros and Lyon, insists Villa will make sure the next fixture counts and secures their European future.

The striker - Villa's top scorer last season with 13 goals - said: "We knew it was going to be a difficult game because Odense were playing at home in front of an enthusiastic public.

We got a good start but they came back, then we scored again but then they came back again. It was a good game but unfortunately we didn't win.

"It is early in the season and this was a difficult game for us after just two weeks back in training. But we got two goals away from home so that is very positive.

"It was a good start to the game for us; it was just a pity we didn't go on to win the game. But the two away goals mean it was an okay result in the end."

Carew hailed skipper Laursen for his own effort on target which looked to have given Villa the win, saying; "I was pleased for Martin Laursen to get a goal and it would have been even better if it had been the winning goal but returning to his home country it was very important for him to do well.

"We will work hard to prepare for the second leg now. It's a game we should win and I'm sure we will do what is necessary at Villa Park with our fans backing us.

"To reach the Uefa Cup is a big prize and we need to complete the task next week. It is a very big game and we will be ready."

Meanwhile, Villa are back on the pre-season friendly trail tonight with the visit to the Banks's Stadium to take on League One side Walsall FC. Martin O'Neill's men face Jimmy Mullen's young side in a 7.45pm kick-off.

Mullen, who will face Villa for the first time since taking over the manager's role from Richard Money at the end of last season, said: "This is another important step forward in our preparations. Everything we do now is geared towards us getting ready for the first game of the season against Yeovil Town on Saturday August 9.

"This is a big game for the supporters. Aston Villa is a squad packed full of quality and it will provide us with an extremely stern test.

"There will be some new faces on show and everyone is looking forward to it."

Some tickets still remain for the event costing pounds 12 for adults and pounds 6 for children in all areas of the ground. A decent Villa crowd is expected and will be housed in the Homeserve Stand and the West Bromwich Building Society Stand inside the stadium which holds some 10,000 supporters.

Walsall have, like Villa, not enjoyed the best pre-season preparations, slumping 3-0 to Hednesford Town and 4-0 to Worcester City, while Villa started well with a 6-0 win over Swiss side Wil 1900 but then lost 2-1 to Zurich and then 3-1 to League Two side Lincoln City.

CAPTION(S):

Striker John Carew is confident ahead of his side's Intertoto Cup clash with Odense Picture, NEVILLE WILLIAMS
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 22, 2008
Words:906
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