Premier League Preview - Aston Villa
MANAGER: Paul Lambert
STADIUM: Villa Park (42788)
LAST SEASON: 16TH
If the season had lasted a few seasons longer Alex McLeish and Randy Lerner may have had to go into hiding for the summer as Villa looked a near certainty to plummet aimlessly into the abyss without so much of a whimper - a shadow of seasons gone by and truly a shame given the talent at their disposal.
One staggering conclusion to be drawn from the McLeish era was that Villa were simply not attacking enough. Their creative players were shackled and forced to fit a system that had long since expired - consequently ploughing Villa into the mire and endangering their very livelihood in the top flight. As matters stood they managed to avoid the drop and now must re-build.
IN: Matthew Lowton (Sheffield United, £3m), Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord, undisclosed), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord, undisclosed) Brett Holman (AZ Alkmaar, free)
OUT: James Collins (West Ham, undisclosed), Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland, free), Emile Heskey (released).
How things change, it only takes a summer and a little shift around in the back-room and optimism is the word on supporters` lips - albeit a cautious strain of the bug. Paul Lambert led Norwich City to back to back promotions and started off the Canaries` campaign like an exocet missile.
While their progress slowed, it was the stability Lambert built that ensured that the Canaries were safe - while the challenge is different in terms of ambition, the battle itself and the level of organisation and motivation Lambert instilled at City will be transferable as the Scotsman takes on the challenge at Villa Park.
KEY MAN: Darren Bent
After injury continues to blight his every progress, Bent will now have a chance to prove his worth to the supporters under new managerial guidance. Whether or not Bent can now make that step up and score the goals necessary to fire Villa to a higher position remains to be seen, but that may be the point on which Villa's season hinges.
Coming up through the ranks at Ipswich, Bent displayed his excellent goalscoring prowess at Town before going on to net for Charlton Athletic, Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland - where he developed an excellent eye for goal and made him a regular fixture for international call-ups.
Suffice to say I expect Villa to be stronger this season. Flair players in N'Zogbia and Agbonlahor will be set free and given license to terrorise. Villa however will not necessarily be as defensively switched on as last season and will have to guard against ploughing forward without support for the rearguard options.