Everton v Aston Villa: International aims driving on Villans

Dean Smith believes the dream of winning international honours this summer will help keep Villa’s players fired up for the Premier League run-in.

Aston Villa's John McGinn (fourth right) celebrates
Aston Villa's John McGinn (fourth right) celebrates

Villa visit Everton tonight for a fixture which just a few weeks ago looked set to be a showdown between two teams vying for European football.

But while Smith’s men have since fallen off the pace, the boss believes there is still no shortage of motivation for his squad and in particular those players who harbour aspirations of figuring for their national teams in the months ahead.

Tyrone Mings, Ollie Watkins, Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett are aiming to be part of England’s Euro 2020 squad, while midfielder Douglas Luiz and goalkeeper Emi Martinez hope to be involved in the Copa America for Brazil and Argentina respectively.

Smith said: “I feel there is a lot of motivation. We have players who are still dreaming of getting into the Euros this season, others who are trying to get into the Copa America. There is a lot for them to play for individually.”

Targett outlined his England ambitions after signing a contract extension this week. The left-back became the fifth player to be rewarded an improved deal this season and Smith believes that can provide motivation for others looking to secure their place in the club’s long-term future.

Villa will look to strengthen the depth of their squad during the summer window and Smith said: “As people have seen, players who keep improving and keep doing well, who are consistent have been rewarded with new contracts and kept at the club.

“Jack was the first, then Tyrone, John McGinn, Ezri and now Matt Targett. We believe we are strengthening what will be the core of the team for a few years for Villa. There are certainly still another half a dozen players who can earn that role as well.”

Smith believes Targett’s transformation is a shining example of what can be achieved through hard work on the training ground.

The 25-year-old endured, by his own admission, a difficult first season after joining from Southampton for an initial £11.5million fee in 2019.

This season he has looked stronger, both mentally and physically.

“Our job is to improve players and improve people,” said Smith. “We knew the talent was there which is why we brought him in. He is a top technician, a very good footballer.

“But he probably broke down a few times last season and we have had to build that robustness.

“He has been a big part of that. He talks about the mental strength himself. Our training ground now is a centre for these players to keep growing, in terms of the facilities we have got, the staff we have got are here to help players get better.

“The biggest step is always to try to make the players realise we are here to help them improve.

“Matt Targett has done that. He has taken it on and moved his game, I believe, to another level. He has pretty much played every minute of every game.”

Targett will tonight be part of a Villa defence hunting its 15th clean sheet of the season. The current run of six matches without a shut-out is comfortably their longest of the season.

Matty Cash, available again after serving a one-match suspension, is likely to replace Ahmed Elmohamady at right-back but while Keinan Davis finally broke his Premier League duck by scoring in last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Albion, Smith will resist calls to play two up front from the start at Goodison Park.

“From time to time (we might do that),” said Smith. “Whether we start games with it or not, I’m not sure. When you look at the Premier League in general, control of the football is very important and if you give up space in midfield, you’re going to be on the back foot for long periods of the game. I was brought up on a long striker and short striker, with Gary Shaw and Peter Withe at the club, so I’m certainly not averse to that but we have to control football games first.”

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