Aston Villa surprised many neutrals last season, and probably even some of their own supporters, with their 6th-place finish. In 2006-2007, the Villans checked in at a respectable 11th, a nice improvement from 16th the season before. Villa’s emergence, led by manager Martin O’Neill, came with one of the smallest, if not THE smallest, first team rosters in the Premiership. Fortunately for O’Neill, that roster was full of fresh legs, and they carried Villa in style to a place in this summer’s Intertoto Cup.
The Birmingham-based club has now advanced to the UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round, where they’ll meet FH, an Icelandic side that shouldn’t provide much more than token resistance. If Villa does what they should do, they’ll progress to the First Round proper.
O’Neill realizes he needs a deeper squad to account for the extra slate of games that the UEFA Cup will bring, and to make a serious run at a place in next season’s Champions League. To wit, he’s added five players and made permanent the acquisition of another, Curtis Davies. At least four of those six players will start for Villa this season, and five will see significant playing time.
Brad Friedel replaces Scott Carson, who had a terrific ’07-’08 season on loan from Liverpool, in goal. Full-backs Luke Young (right) and Nicky Shorey (left) were both brought in yesterday for a combined $16 million. Young is the only pure right back on the roster with Olof Mellberg’s departure and is coming off a solid season for Middlesbrough. Shorey takes the place of Wilfred Bouma, who started every game for Villa last season but suffered a horrific-looking dislocated ankle in the second leg of his team’s Intertoto Cup Third Round tie against Odense BK on July 26. Bouma is scheduled to return just after Christmas if his recovery goes according to plan, but will now have competition for his old place. Curtis Davies’ loan deal from West Brom was made permanent for nearly $20 million this summer. He is ahead of schedule on his return from a ruptured Achilles tendon on March 1 at Arsenal, having played 60 minutes in recent back-to-back friendlies. When fully fit, he’ll compete with Zat Knight to start alongside Martin Laursen at center back at the very least, and he may very well win the job. Steve Sidwell never should’ve left Reading two summers ago; he had a season to forget last year at Chelsea, but his career could be revived at Villa.
O’Neill lost only one key piece — Mellberg. The Swedish international was a fixture in Villa’s back line and a rock on the right side. He didn’t get forward like a traditional right back, but he won nearly everything in the air and just didn’t make mistakes on defense. Carson went back to Liverpool as he was only on loan, and Liverpool wound up selling him straight away to West Brom for a discount price.
Villa is strongest in midfield, where the addition of Sidwell provides some insurance in case Liverpool does end up buying Gareth Barry before the transfer window closes. Ashley Young is a star-in-the-making on the left wing and very underrated by those outside of the club. He’ll have more of a free role this season, and look for him to occasionally drift inside behind the strikers. If Barry stays, he’ll play in the center. The versatility of Nigel Reo-Coker, a natural center midfielder, will allow him to shift to the right flank to accommodate Sidwell. Reo-Coker is nothing flashy but he’s quick and as tenacious a ball-winner as they come. You’ll see a few other players out there, though, too — Shaun Maloney can play on either wing but typically is used to be a spark off the bench, Craig Gardner may get a chance, and Stiliyan Petrov can play either on the right or in the middle. Isaiah Osbourne provides solid cover in the center. Moustapha Salifou is a perfect fill-in for Sidwell. Wayne Routledge, like Maloney, is a speedy little winger but prefers to play on the right.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2/4-3-1-2):
**CMF/LCMF: Barry (captain)
ST: John Carew
ST: Gabriel Agbonlahor
*When Villa plays a 4-3-1-2, Young is the “1″, with Barry, Sidwell, and Reo-Coker (L to R) as the “3″. Because the attack-minded Sidwell is on board and they already have Young, they’re more likely to use the 4-4-2. Remember, though, when Villa hit a great run of form towards the end of last year, O’Neill did use the 4-3-1-2.
**If Barry does leave, either Reo-Coker, the current vice-captain, or Laursen will inherit the captain’s armband. Reo-Coker will shift into the middle with Sidwell, and either Petrov or Maloney will start on the right. If it’s Maloney, Villa will surely use the 4-4-2. If it’s Petrov, Villa can play either formation.
It’s not as confusing as I know I just made it sound, so don’t worry.
Villa has already their started their season; they knocked Odense out of Europe as I alluded to earlier. They next play in Iceland against FH on the 14th, and their Premiership season kicks off three days later with an interesting home game against Manchester City. A trip to Stoke City and the return leg with FH follows those two matches. O’Neill’s side finishes up the month with another appetizing match at Villa Park, this one against Liverpool. In the corresponding fixture last season, Steven Gerrard won the game late with a magical free kick that was one of the year’s best goals.
October brings Chelsea (away) and Portsmouth and Blackburn (both at home), as well as a visit to Wigan, a must-win game for the Villans.
Arsenal and Manchester United headline Villa’s November slate, and the “Big Four” opponents come on successive weekends. Home games against Middlesbrough and Fulham should be straightforward, though the game at St. James’ Park to start the month is tricky.
Interestingly enough, Villa closes out the season with their most difficult stretch and their easiest stretch back-to-back. In a five-game span that comprises all of March and half of April, they’ll play Man City (away), Tottenham (home), Liverpool (away), Manchester United (away), and Everton (home), but they follow that run with West Ham at home, Bolton away, Hull City at home, Fulham away, Middlesbrough away, and Newcastle at home to finish up.
Bottom Line: Holding on to Barry would be a major boost for Villa and at the same time, losing him would be a big loss. The increased number of games that comes with playing in Europe will test Martin O’Neill and the resolve of his team. There is plenty of talent on the roster so expect the team to be in the top six with or without their current captain. If they have him, though, they can compete for 4th place. American chairman Randy Lerner has pledged more money to O’Neill if he wants to go out there and buy a couple more pieces, and I’d expect the manager to strengthen this squad a little bit more in the back.