For a while last season, it appeared that Aston Villa were sleepwalking their way to the Championship, but as they travel to Upton Park to face newly-promoted West Ham, the travails of the previous campaign have been forgotten as optimism sweeps across the club.
Villa fans just reading the name Alex McLeish will come out in a cold sweat, but the Scot’s dreadful reign of terror is over and they now have smiles on their faces again thanks to the appointment of Paul Lambert, the seemingly unanimous choice of the Holte End, and for the first time since Martin O’Neill left the club in a huff on the eve of the 2010/11 season, Villa can look up rather than down.
Lambert has taken his O’Neill impression to the nth degree by landing the Villa job and he deserves nothing less than a crack at one of the traditionally big clubs in England after his incredible work at Norwich, where he over-achieved massively to take the Canaries from League One to Premier League safety in three seasons.
He will need to over-achieve again in the short term if Villa are to finish anywhere near the area of the table they regularly occupied under O’Neill (that kind of success is years away), but at least Lambert will offer the Villa fans some positive football and plenty of endeavour, something which the hapless McLeish was unable to provide.
Villa will be comfortable dealing with long balls and can play quick on the break. They also have a fully fit Darren Bent, who looks in fine form after scoring twice against Werder Bremen last weekend.
And even if over the course of the season Lambert is unable to maintain results and a high level of performance given the uneven and erratically talented nature of his squad, I am expecting a fast start from Villa given the Scot’s motivational skills and I look at a price of 9/4 for them to beat West Ham and I can’t help but be tempted.
It is the same price that the spoils are shared, with West Ham the 6/5 favourites – but I think that is far too short for a team who I expect to struggle badly this term.
I appreciate it is a minority view, but I think the Hammers could be relegated back to the Championship. The poor relationship between manager Sam Allardyce and the fans means a happy ending is impossible and it will not take much for the crowd to turn irretrievably on Big Sam.
The locals are on his back anyway despite promotion, so imagine what it will be like if results do not come quickly, especially considering Allardyce’s tactics are the antithesis of the free-flowing, attacking football the Boleyn Ground faithful expect.
Given the vastly enlarged budget Allardyce enjoyed compared to his rivals in the Championship, not winning automatic promotion was a poor show. A play-off win lifted West Ham into the big league, but for me, they lack big-league players.
There have been some fine midfield additions, but they look weak up front despite having so many strikers to call upon, while none of their centre-backs convince and new keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen’s best days are most certainly behind him.
And until such time as I am proved wrong, I want to be against West Ham, especially at home, where they failed to win 12 of their 23 fixtures last term and kept only seven clean sheets.
Allardyce’s predictable tactics were a big part of this and I think they will play into the hands of a Villa side that will be comfortable dealing with long balls and can play quick on the break. They also have a fully fit Darren Bent, who looks in fine form after scoring twice against Werder Bremen last weekend.
Villa have lost just four of their 16 Premier League trips to West Ham and I have to take a bit of that 9/4.
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