- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

SEVILLE, Spain | Aston Villa is on a mission: Crack the top four of the English Premier League.

That giant task in many ways began under the blazing sun of Malaga, Spain, where the club is competing in the 12-team Peace Cup - a preseason event that coach Martin O’Neill said gives his club a chance to “build up to the season rather than being thrown into the deep end.”

Villa wilted in the heat in the opener, losing to Spanish club Malaga on a late strike.

The loss wasn’t all bad for the Americans on the team. Veteran goalie Brad Friedel played a stunner, and ex-Tar Heels defender Eric Lichaj of Downers Grove, Ill., made his first start and performed well. The 20-year-old, whose parents are Polish, is hoping to break into the first team this season.

Aston Villa now sits on the verge of elimination from the Peace Cup and needs a win over Mexican club Atlante on Wednesday to have any chance of advancing.

Atlante, a late entry to the competition as a replacement for Scottish club Celtic, downed Malaga 3-1 on Tuesday to take the lead in Group C. Aston Villa must beat the CONCACAF Champions League winner by three goals to advance to the semifinals.

The Peace Cup is a 12-team tournament sponsored by the Sunmoon Peace Football Foundation, a corporate sister of The Washington Times.

Last season Aston Villa appeared on track to break into the top four in the Premiership, an elite level long dominated by Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal.

But the club slipped late in the season and finished sixth. Critics said the team had failed to buy enough players in the preseason and that its small squad just ran out of energy.

O’Neill wants to rectify that for the 2009-10 campaign. He hopes that Randy Lerner, an American who owns both Aston Villa and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, will dole out the cash for at least eight more players to round out his roster before the season kicks off against Wigan on Aug. 15.

Villa already spent big money on winger Stewart Downing as a replacement for Gareth Barry, who last month was lured to Dubai-owned Manchester City - another club with top-four ambitions.

Villa’s roster for this tour is thin - the club left behind three of its young stars, including striker Gabriel Agbonlahor.

But in the goalkeeping department Aston Villa is strong. Friedel, 38, is backed by 24-year-old American Brad Guzan, who last month played in the nets for the U.S. national team as it beat Egypt in the Confederations Cup.

They’ll need to be strong for Villa, one of the original founders of the Football League and a winner of the European Cup in 1982, to get back to the top.

Note - Cristiano Ronaldo converted a penalty kick to break the deadlock as Real Madrid advanced to the semifinals with a 4-2 win over Liga de Quito in Madrid on Tuesday. The Spanish giant will meet Italian club Juventus, 3-0 winners over Korean club Seongnam Ilhwa, in the final four in Seville on Friday.

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