Last Season: 9th
FA Cup: Fifth round
Carling Cup: Quarter-finals
Europa League: Play-off round
Opening three fixtures: Fulham (a), Blackburn (h), Wolves (h)
Transfers In: Shay Given (Man City), Charles N’Zogbia (Wigan)
Transfers Out: Stewart Downing (Liverpool), Ashley Young (Man Utd), Brad Friedel (Tottenham, free) Nigel Reo-Coker (Bolton, free), Robert Pires (released), John Carew (released), Moustapha Salifou (released), Isaiah Osbourne (released)
Key man: Darren Bent
Title odds: 350/1
The last time Aston Villa mounted a serious Premier League challenge, Ron Atkinson was in charge of the club with ‘deadly’ Doug Ellis as his chairman. It was the first season of the breakaway competition and Villa have never been so close to the top, finishing runners-up to Manchester United, and one strongly suspects it could be some time before they reach those dizzy heights again.
With key players Stewart Downing and Ashley Young opting for pastures new this summer, Villa’s odds may have been slightly shorter than the 350/1 on offer. However, even if they had kept the aforementioned England internationals at the club, boss Alex McLeish would need to perform miracles to maintain a title challenge, with even a top-six finish seemingly beyond them, such is the strength of the Premier League.
Finishing in top four odds: 16/1
There’s a general perception around Villa Park that if the club were to compete in the Champions League in this day and age, they would have done so under Martin O’Neill. But with an income of £37million from the sales of Downing and Young alone, Villa are likely still to add fresh faces to their young squad before the transfer deadline.
They’ll need to pull off some major coups if they’re to muscle their way into the top four, however, with Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool each investing significantly already, while Arsenal and Tottenham will once again be strong in what promises to be a top six fighting for the right to play in the Champions League next year.
Unfortunately for Villa, the task of ousting any one of these stalwarts is mammoth, meaning a top-four finish is a step too soon for McLeish’s reign.
To be relegated: 12/1
So often touted as direct competition for top-ten mainstays Everton, Villa limped over the top-half line in the dying stages of the league last season. Indeed, Villa’s odds of relegation are shorter than their top-four price, and rightly so, having flirted with the notion under Gerard Houllier last season before pulling away from the scrap at the last.
McLeish’s appointment as the Frenchman’s successor is an interesting one, given that he suffered the feat with rivals Birmingham last season. Villa have put faith in the man who relegated their bitter city rivals and only time will tell if it’s been a wise decision, but I’m predicting trouble ahead.
The Villa Park terraces will take some convincing to be won over by the Scot, putting him under intense pressure from the off, and how he copes with that could shape the future of both him and the club.
But every now and then, the Premier League loses a club that is deemed ‘too big to go down’. It happened to Leeds, it happened to West Ham and Newcastle too, so there’s no reason why it can’t happen to Villa. Although a fantastic finisher, Darren Bent requires chances on a plate and will not get such a plentiful supply without the Downing-Young axis, so expect him to find the back of the net less this season.
In former Wigan winger Charles N’Zogbia they’ve bought a player who is familiar with carrying a club at the wrong end of the table, and one suspects his move to Villa may only serve as a sidestep. How the club invest their new-found funds before the transfer window shuts will be crucial but, at present, Villa to be relegated at 12/1 might just prove the outside bet of the season.
Despite suggesting Villa are a good price at 12/1 to be relegated, I feel the signing of Shay Given may just be enough to steer them to a narrow survival. One of the ‘too good to go down’ teams of yesteryear were Newcastle, as mentioned, and the Magpies owe years of gratitude to Republic of Ireland international Given, whose point-winning displays went somewhat unnoticed but kept the club in the division for years on end. It was only after his sale to Man City in early 2009 that Newcastle suffered the inevitable that May – and it was no coincidence.
Now in the West Midlands after a harsh bench-warming spell at City, Given is a Villa player and an important one at that. Brad Friedel’s departure was met with murmurs of discontent amongst some supporters, but in Given they now possess a younger, more agile stopper who also arrives with bags of experience.
His presence will give the team, most notably the defence, greater confidence, but their lack of firepower in attack, I feel, will prove their downfall. With talented youngsters such as Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan set for greater roles, Villa’s lack of experience in midfield threatens to nullify their potential.
Goals may also be hard to come by, depending on how Bent copes without Downing and Young. Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor will struggle to hit double figures in all competitions, while Villa are without a midfielder who offers a consistent goal threat. Don’t expect Villa Park to be the place for entertainment this season, but I’m expecting their defence to keep them up with a finish of around 16th place.
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