Saturday, July 28, 2007

Aston Villa

Manager: Martin O’Neill

Key Arrivals: Marlon Harewood, Nigel Reo-Coker

Key Departures: Juan Pablo Angel, Steven Davis, Aaron Hughes, Gavin McCann

Key Returning Players: Thomas Sorensen, Olof Mellberg, Martin Laursen, Gareth Barry, John Carew, Marlon Harewood, Stiliyan Petrov, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Wilfred Bouma, Ashley Young, Liam Ridgewell, Gary Cahill, Luke Moore, Patrik Berger, Shaun Maloney

Performance Last Season: Aston Villa was comfortably mid-table in the 2006-2007 season, finishing 11th on 50 points. They were 4 points ahead of Middlesborough, and their Goal Differential was better by 7. Despite a roaring start to the campaign under new manager Martin O’Neil, Villa was never a serious threat to push further up the table and contend for a UEFA Cup spot.

The new boss used the season, particularly the January transfer window, to re-construct the team after the disastrous tenure of David O’Leary. As the season went on, the side became something of draw specialists, sharing the points 17 times, easily the most in the top flight. This was no fault of Gabriel Agbonlahor, whose emergence showed O’Neill can still develop young players, despite his penchant for playing only seasoned veterans at Celtic. The youngster led the club in goals, and would have been a key performer for the England under 21’s this summer, had he not dropped his mobile in the bath, or some other such excuse that Martin was more than happy to hear. There is also no truth to the rumour that Psycho will be fitting the lad with a GPS tracker before the next international break.

At the end of the campaign, Villa supporters had a lot to look forward to. Martin O’Neil had made several good signings, and would have the summer transfer window to build the squad in his own image, wit the help of new owner Randy Lerner’s deep pockets.

Strengths: At this point it looks to be the attackers. Carew and Young were both good buys in January, and should be rearing to go after having a full pre-season to settle in. Maloney is less of a talent, but a nice player to have coming off the subs bench. I think they may have overpaid a bit for Harewood, as he has still never proven he can be a consistent threat in the top flight. Moore and Agbonlahor both have bright futures ahead of them, and it will be interesting to see how O’Neil gets all of his pacey youngsters on the pitch at the same time. Perhaps it will be Carew and Moore up front to start, with Young and Agbonlahor on the wing. However he does it, it should be a joy to watch, even from the Doug Ellis stand (Really, who names a stand after themselves?).

Weaknesses: Villa are still looking for a right back, Mark Delaney is injured, while Aaron Hughes has moved on and Phil Bardsley has gone back to Manchester United, but perhaps even more defensive cover than that is needed. They let in 41 goals last season, and only 5 clubs let in less, but Gavin McCann is no longer there to patrol the midfield and protect the back four. It is likely that Petrov will step back into the holding role, as Reo-Coker has always been more of an attacker. The Bulgarian started out well last season but was very inconsistent, putting in several poor performances. If he has not yet come to terms with the premiership, Villa’s defence could be quite vulnerable up the middle, particularly to attacking midfielders.

If all goes right: Aston Villa will challenge for a UEFA Cup spot. Reo-Coker returns to his form of two years ago, Barry and Agbonlahor continue their form from last season, and the Villans re-establish themselves as a top 6 side. Champions League qualification is a step too far, but with Lerner’s dollars and another year or two of smart buys from Martin O’Neill, the future could be very bright.

If all goes wrong: The club is still looking to make more signings, and they have over a month to do so, but right now the squad is very small. Injuries could leave the club very thin at the back and in central midfield. The young attackers could wilt under the pressure to score more goals and regress. Considering the talent on display, and O’Neill’s record of grinding out results when necessary, relegation seems unlikely, but a bottom 5 finish would be considered a step backwards by Villa supporters.

My Prediction: The defence will be a problem all season, and McCann will be sorely missed. But the attacking flare on display at Villa Park will be a pleasure to watch. The club will spend parts of the season amongst the UEFA Cup challengers, but fall short in the end. I think they will end up in 9th place, an improvement which should keep the supporters happy for one more season. Of course, if Mr. Lerner decides another mid-table finish is unacceptable, some big purchases in January could push the club into the top 6.

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