Thursday, August 2, 2007

Premiership Preview--7. Aston Villa

7. Aston Villa finishing 7th place this season is going to be predicated on one thing--scoring more goals. Their total of 43 league goals in 38 games was good for just 12th best last season (they finished 11th overall), and was a major contributing factor to not finishing in a UEFA Cup spot. Villa closed out the season unbeaten in their last 9 games and in 10 of their last 11, but 6 of those games were draws, 5 of which were either 0-0 or 1-1. Winning just 3 of those 6 (while still getting a draw in the other 3) would've resulted in a 7th place finish and a place in Europe, but they couldn't score enough goals to get it done.

Aston Villa was raided for players this summer; Fulham and Bolton each signed two players who played for Villa last season, and Lee Hendrie went to Sheffield United. However, with all respect to the players that left Villa, none of them was the kind of player who left a gaping void in the club. Midfielder Steven Davis rejoined his former national team manager Lawrie Sanchez at Fulham, but he wasn't really factoring into Aston Villa's plans under manager Martin O'Neill. Another midfielder, Gavin McCann, is a reliable player when healthy, but numerous injury setbacks marred his time at Aston Villa and he made a move to Bolton. A reduction in playing time led defender Jlloyd Samuel to also leave for Bolton after playing for Villa since 1998, but he, too, was struck by the injury bug over the past couple seasons and the emergence of Wilfred Bouma at left back signaled the way out for Samuel. Aaron Hughes, Davis' teammate with Northern Ireland and that team's captain, also went to Fulham. Hughes is a very versatile player who can play anywhere in the back or in midfield and out of any of the players who left Villa, his departure hurts the club the most. However, full credit to Martin O'Neill and billionaire American chairman Randy Lerner for going out and spending some money to bring in two big-name, proven players to help address the club's weak areas. The addition of Marlon Harewood gives O'Neill four extremely capable striking options to choose from (Gabriel Agbonlahor, Harewood, Luke Moore, and John Carew). With West Ham since 2003, Harewood scored only 3 league goals last season, but averaged a goal every three games for them in his time there (47 goals in 142 league appearances). Nigel Reo-Coker looked disinterested at times with West Ham last season, but the former England U-21 captain is still only 23 years of age and possesses both excellent defensive and attacking qualities. He joins a midfield that is one of the best in the Premiership, maybe even the best of the teams that aren't part of the "Big Four". Captain Gareth Barry, the "Beast of "Birmingham" is a supremely talented ball-server from the left side, Stiliyan Petrov is solid, Patrik Berger revived his career with Villa last season after some outstanding play towards the end of the season, young players Craig Gardner, Isaiah Osbourne, and Shaun Maloney all have great potential, but the player who could turn out to be the best of the bunch is Ashley Young, who can operate as a striker or as a winger and has exceptional pace and quickness.

No month in the schedule stands out as being exceptionally difficult, but there's only one month that shouldn't give Aston Villa much trouble (November; home against Derby County, away to Birmingham and Middlesbrough). That game at Birmingham is the first Birmingham Derby of the season, and Villa will host Birmingham at Villa Park on April 20, the fourth-to-last game of the year. In the first three months of the season, Aston Villa will play three of the "Big Four", one in each month, but they all come to Villa Park (Liverpool, then Chelsea, then Manchester United). The last 6 games of the season are all winnable, with an away game at Everton the toughest of the bunch.

Bottom Line: Scoring goals shouldn't be a problem this season for Villa with the strikers that they have, coupled with no Juan Pablo Angel to give playing time to (he scored only 4 goals in 23 league appearances last season before moving to MLS). Villa allowed only 41 goals last season, but the defense has a few question marks aside from Olof Mellberg and Bouma. Goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen had to be helped off the field with an injury in a friendly at Toronto FC last week, and Villa will really need him healthy enough to start the season as they have to get out to a good start. I can't see Aston Villa finishing much higher than 7th, certainly no higher than 6th, and if they don't score like they should they could play their way out of a UEFA Cup spot.

No comments: