Aston Villa approaching new season amid uncertainty and excitement
It is no secret that Aston Villa, 13/5 to be relegated this season, have had a ‘for sale’ sign hanging up outside Villa Park for some time.
This far from ideal situation leaves current staff and fans unsure of what the future may bring. American owner Randy Lerner has insisted his decision to part company with the club will have no impact on it’s fortunes this campaign, stating: “my priority… is that the Villa organisation’s sole focus be football – undistracted by any sales.”
Whether this proves to be the case remains to be seen, as newly-promoted sides such as QPR and Leicester City have already begun to strengthen in the summer transfer market, with Villa facing the very real prospect of being left behind.
It’s not all doom and gloom at Villa Park though, and the Birmingham Claret and Blue faithful should still have plenty to cheer about, with new assistant-manager Roy Keane almost guaranteed to bring bags of controversy with him. Paul Lambert and Keane certainly sound like an intriguing pairing, or at least a disastrously entertaining double act.
From an optimistic point of view, uncertainty around the side and tightening of the purse strings, will enable the current crop of players and coaches to take another shot at impressing.
When new owners take over, a wave of dismissals and transfers almost inevitably follow. In this instance, with Lerner still in charge, consistency could prove key, and Villa will not be required to sweat over bedding in a raft of expensive new recruits.
The situation has seemingly encouraged Lambert to allow ostracised fringe players such as Alan Hutton back in from the cold, after the coach admitted: “Everyone is even now…It’s publically known what’s happened and everyone is on a level playing field.”
Big-name players have flopped for the Birmingham side in recent times, leading several to dub themselves ‘the bomb squad’, and there are still plenty of high-earners on the books who have yet to shine.
Forgotten men Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia could have been two candidates for the chop, but there is now space for both to flourish this season.
Villa smashed their transfer record to bring in Bent, who was stripped of the captaincy in 2012 and shipped out on loan to Fulham last term after underwhelming performances. With only one year left on his contract, it is unlikely a sale would recoup much of Villa’s reported £24m outlay, so it may benefit both club and player to give their relationship another try.
In the absence of injured Belgian striker Christian Benteke, who netted 11 times last season, Bent could thrive again as the main man, if he is surrounded by enough creativity, that is. If Villa can present chances on a plate, poacher Bent still has enough left in the tank to deliver.
Benteke’s stint on the sidelines may also work out favourably, as it has meant the in-demand forward, who will miss the start of the new campaign, is unlikely to be prised away from Villa Park just yet.
If he can return to form and fitness, the lethal predator is talented enough to fire his side away from any potential relegation scrap.
Similarly, N’Zogbia’s return could well be the clichéd ‘almost like a new signing’ that the Villains need. The tricky and versatile winger suffered an achilles injury before the start of last season and was unable to take part in any matches for the entire campaign.
After such a long lay-off fans may need to be patient, but signs are positive. The French international made a significant contribution in a pre-season friendly against Dallas, and illustrated the attacking spark Villa had been missing, curling in a free kick to ensure victory for his side.
Free transfers rarely manage to whip up excitement, but much-maligned manager Lambert has done well to scoop up midfielder Joe Cole. Released by West Ham, the former Chelsea and Liverpool winger still has the talent to dazzle defences.
Only finishing five points clear of the relegation zone last season, and netting one less goal than demoted Fulham, Villa sorely require a touch of his mercurial magic.
The addition of Kieron Richardson for an undisclosed fee could also prove to be a shrewd signing. Having already linked up with Keane once at Sunderland, the former Fulham and Manchester United man is invaluably adaptable.
Able to play as a full back, or on the wing, the 29-year-old also brings with him a wealth of experience after stints at West Brom and Fulham, having carved out a respectable career since his departure from Old Trafford.
If Villa are to avoid another relegation dogfight, their focus should not necessarily be on incoming transfers, though, but on the stars they already have at their disposal. Long-term contracts for tough-tackling Netherlands defender Ron Vlaar, and Fabian Delph, who was voted Aston Villa Player of the Year, should be high priorities.
Vlaar in particular has a host of suitors waiting in the wings, following his World Cup exploits as part of Louis van Gaal’s much-hailed Netherlands back three. Solid Premier League standard centre backs do not grow on trees, though, and there is no guarantee that any fee received for the durable Dutchman would be reinvested on a replacement of similar quality.
Villa’s party line is that their skipper is not for sale, and fans will have to hope they stick to their word, else face potential backline wobbles.
Philippe Senderos is another free transfer, and despite many groans at his arrival, could turn out to be a smart addition. He will pad out the defensive options, and cover what should be a fairly strong first pick of Vlaar and one of Jores Okore, Nathan Baker or Ciaran Clark.
Danish centre half Okore only made three appearances last term, seemingly suffering from Villa’s injury curse, but the highly-rated defender could make a valuable contribution this campaign.
Delph, meanwhile, is finally showing the potential that saw him coveted by the likes of Man United when at former club Leeds.
If the creative midfielder, who has thrilled at times, can live up to his billing, and combine well with Cole, the west midlands outfit, 10/3 to for a top ten finish, could be in for a more exciting season than expected.