Friday, August 8, 2008

Premiership Preview--5. Aston Villa

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):
GK: Friedel

RB: Young
CB: Laursen
CB: Knight
LB: Shorey

*RMF/RCMF: Reo-Coker
**CMF/LCMF: Barry (captain)
CMF: Sidwell
*LMF/AMF: Young

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 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.

Premiership Preview--6. Tottenham

The 2007-2008 season was a roller coaster for Tottenham Hotspur. Martin Jol was removed from the manager's post in late October, but only found out through a text message sent to his nephew, who then forwarded the news to the Dutchman's phone. A team that was a trendy pick to break into the top four at Arsenal's expense was sitting around 15th place at the time, and for all the plaudits received by Juande Ramos for the job he did after he took over from Jol, Spurs still only wound up in 11th. They beat Chelsea to win the Carling Cup, but Ramos isn't being paid a whopping $9 million per season for mid-table finishes.

Spurs have undergone considerable change under Ramos, both on the field and off. The Spaniard implemented new dietary and fitness standards to keep his team in the best possible shape. He uses a more rigid, disciplined 4-4-2 than Jol, relying less on individual creativity and making it a team game.

He's turned over the roster from back to front, bringing in eight new players this summer in addition to the four acquired in the January transfer window, while getting rid of eight others this summer, four in January, and loaning several more out. All these moves haven't come cheaply; the net cost to build this new first team is well over $100 million. To be fair, the money spent has brought back some great young talent and potential high-impact returns.

Heurelho Gomes was signed from PSV for around $14 million to be the starting keeper. David Bentley's initial $30 million price tag needs to justified with his play on the right wing. Luka Modrić is a joint club-record signing at $33 million from Dinamo Zagreb, and the Croatian midfielder should play as an attacking midfielder behind the two strikers. Giovani Dos Santos, who has been labeled as "the next Lionel Messi, cost roughly $9.5 million up front, though that figure could rise to $17.2 million based on performance-related criteria, and the deal includes a sell-on clause as well. Dos Santos made the move from Barcelona, who seemed happy to ship the supremely skilled Mexican youngster off because of some well-documented attitude issues, likely relating to the immaturity that comes part-and-parcel with his age. He'll be looking to prove those doubters wrong with his play opposite Bentley.

Only one major piece from a year ago has left White Hart Lane -- Robbie Keane was sold to Liverpool for a total that could end up at just over $40.5 million. The Irish striker scored 23 goals in all competitions last season and 45 combined in the past two campaigns. He formed a lethal partnership with Dimitar Berbatov up front, who will now pair with Darren Bent.

Spurs are undoubtedly strongest in midfield, where they now have eight players who would be legitimate starters for most every other team in the Premiership. Only four, and occasionally five, can play at the same time, however, and three of those spots already seem to be filled up by Bentley, Dos Santos, and Modrić. Of those three, Dos Santos is the one who may not start all the time because Modrić can play on the left as well, which would allow another central player to get a chance. Four central midfielders -- Tom Huddlestone, Didier Zokora, Jermaine Jenas, and Jamie O'Hara -- are essentially competing for one or two spots, with the middle two the clear favorites at this point, especially Zokora. Kevin-Prince Boateng may also figure into that mix, though he's probably going to be resigned to appearances in cup games. Aaron Lennon (remember him?) provides much more pace than Bentley on the right, but Bentley is a superior crosser and is very good on the set piece. Because of this plethora of midfielders, don't be surprised to see Ramos employ a 4-2-3-1 at times throughout the year.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Gomes

*RB: Alan Hutton
CB: Jonathan Woodgate
**CB: Ledley King (captain)
LB: Gareth Bale

RMF: Bentley
DMF: Zokora
AMF: Modrić
LMF: Dos Santos

ST: Berbatov
ST: Bent

*Hutton is out for an indefinite period with a sprained ankle, so expect to see Zokora inserted there to start the season. Jenas would then be shifted to Zokora's role in the midfield.

**It's been reported that because of King's chronic knee problem, he can realistically only play one game out of every three for the rest of his career. When ready, King will start, but you'll be seeing plenty of Michael Dawson as well.

Games against Chelsea (away), Aston Villa (home), and Portsmouth (away) highlight the six-match opening to Spurs' schedule, which also includes must-win home games with Sunderland and Wigan.

October begins in easy fashion for Ramos' side, with visits from Hull City and Bolton sandwiched around a trip to Stoke City. After those three matches, though, comes the first "scum" vs. "scum", North London derby of the season against Arsenal, with this one coming at the Emirates to finish up the month.

The much-anticipated clash with Arsenal is followed in short order by an appearance from Liverpool, a must-watch game as it's Robbie Keane's return to White Hart Lane.

Tottenham hasn't beaten Arsenal in the Premiership seemingly in ages, and hadn't defeated the Gunners in any competition since November 1999 before they thumped Arsene Wenger's kids 5-1 in the second leg of the Carling Cup semifinal last year. Spurs will get their second chance to beat Arsenal in the league on February 7 and get home-field advantage in that game.

Spurs end the year with four tough games in their last five; road games at Manchester United, Everton, and Liverpool are broken up by a winnable home game against West Brom and a tricky home date with Manchester City.

Bottom Line: It's simple -- if all of the new signings brought in by Ramos can adjust to the Premiership quickly, Spurs has the talent to challenge for a place in next year's Champions League; if not, all the optimism in this part of North London will have gone out the window and it'll be yet another disappointment from the club's end. Tottenham has spent the money to contend, now they have to put up or shut up.