It has been a summer of change at Villa Park with Martin O'Neill replacing David O'Leary as manager and talk of a takeover bid from, among others, American billionaire Randy Lerner.
We spoke to Bill Howell of the Birmingham Evening Mail about Villa's struggles last term, the expectations for this season and the young players who could take the top flight by storm. Read on for the lowdown on our Saturday's opponents.
THE STORY SO FAR
"Last season was poor, end of story. It was the worst points haul for Villa in Premiership history and the worse Premiership finish of 16th. There are perhaps two players who can hold their heads up high and say they exceeded expectations - Gareth Barry and Steven Davis. The rest need to do better this season. That's all behind them now and there's a new manager and a new coaching staff. OK the players are the same but there is just a breath of fresh air around the club. There are issues to be resolved but the feeling is that Villa can't go through the same problems as they did last year. The first pre-season friendly was at Walsall. It's an annual fixture and they haven't won it for a while but they put five past Walsall and there were smiles on people's face this time. They went to Hull and won 2-0 and then won 3-0 at Wolves. Then they had three games abroad when the manager was trying out new systems and new players, trying to fit a lot of pre-season work into one week. He has probably learnt a lot about the players."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"It has to be Martin O'Neill. The mood has been tremendous since he arrived and the fans are ecstatic. I don't think anybody expected O'Neill to be tempted by Aston Villa. He has a tremendous reputation for going to struggling clubs and turning them around. Leicester were struggling in what is now the Championship and O'Neill turned them into trophy winners and a top-half Premiership side. There is an expectation now that Villa won't be struggling. Even with the same players there is a belief that they can finish mid-table and the hope is that once the takeover is complete O'Neill will be given significant funds to turn Villa into European contenders again. The mood among the players is really good, they are being applauded when they do well and being told when they go wrong. There is a real channel of communication now and that is going down very well among the players."
"There are no new players, it's exactly the same playing squad apart from two 16-year-old Swiss twins who have joined the Academy. In terms of player exits Ulises de la Cruz left when his contract ended and the young reserve, Jamie Ward, joined Torquay. If you look at all the other Premiership clubs they have a number of players coming in and going out, but that's not the case at Villa."
THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO...
"This is a big season for Steven Davis. He was last year's shining light and this will only be his second full Premiership season. He is aiming to build on last season and there will be expectation now, but he is a terrific player. Two players shone at the tail-end of last season. Gary Cahill made his debut at Highbury, scored a fantastic goal at Birmingham and played very well. There are big things expected of him. The other young prospect is Gabriel Agbonlahor. He's very quick and came from nowhere to score on his debut in March. He went on to make eight or nine appearances and made a really big impression. He will be a real asset, particularly if Kevin Phillips or Milan Baros move on."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"On the plus side, the squad looks galvanised. There are still one or two issues to be resolved off the pitch and that uncertainly has to transcend to the playing side, but if Villa get off to a good start with a point at Arsenal and a home win against Reading then they will have some momentum. If that happens, you could see Villa pushing back towards the top eight where they have been for a long time, with the exception of the last two, poor seasons."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"On a more negative note, it is exactly the same squad as last season, there are no new players, and if the takeover drags on then you have to consider whether funds will be available to improve the squad, even as far ahead as the January transfer window. The worse-case scenario is that they could face another season of mid-table obscurity, but there is at least a belief that Villa could launch a challenge in one of the Cups."
"O'Neill has looked at various systems this summer in the three games he's had and he may even look at a 3-5-2 formation in some circumstances. You get that impression because he's looked at various players on the right and left flanks, like Luke Moore, Peter Whittingham and Jlloyd Samuel. O'Neill is trying as many things as he can but it's very early days and with regard to Arsenal I think he'll stick with what the players know. Villa are likely to play 4-4-2, there are a few options but two or three players are carrying injuries. Milan Baros and Patrik Berger are definitely out, Wilfred Bouma has a hamstring - he and Gary Cahill both need fitness tests. Steven Davis picked up a thigh strain in pre-season but has been training most of the week. Martin Laursen was out all last year with a knee injury but he has a chance to play."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"Well, it's a new stadium but the same old Arsenal. I am looking forward to it tremendously. As O'Neill has said, when people look back in 100 years time they will say that Villa played in the opening game, so it's great to be a part of that history. When you look at Arsenal you see no Bergkamp, no Pires, no Campbell and doubts over some other players, but then you go through the squad and they have so much talent, pace and strength. Fabregas is outstanding and Henry is such a danger to everyone. The problem is, if you start to try and work him out and deny him space to cut in from the left, you are giving other players more room. For example, I think Rosicky could become a huge player for Arsenal."
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