Thursday, August 14, 2008

EPL Previews: Heroes & Villans

Martin O'Neill has set a strict deadline for reading this preview and doesn't want to hear any whining if you can't meet it.

In: CB Curtis Davies (West Brom - undisclosed), MF Steve Sidwell (Chelsea - £5M), GK Brad Friedel (Blackburn - £2M), GK Brad Guzan (Chivas USA - undisclosed), FB Nicky Shorey (Reading - undisclosed), FB Luke Young (Middlesbrough - undisclosed), CB Carlos Cuellar (Rangers - £7.8M).

Out: CB Olof Mellberg (Juventus - free), GK Thomas Sorensen (released), MF Patrik Berger (Sparta Prague - free), ST Luke Moore (West Brom - £3M).

Last Season: 6th in the Premier League (60 points)(71 goals for, 51 goals conceded, 9 clean sheets)

Overview: Last season, in my own personal previews, I picked Aston Villa to finish 8th. I also said that "6th or 7th was a possibility". More than possible it turned out, as Martin O'Neill guided the Birmingham club into Europe in his second season at the helm. The club earned 11 more points than the previous term and added 21 more goals to the equation (granted, they also let in 10 more goals). The Big Question now becomes, can Villa build on that 6th place finish or is that the ceiling for the claret & sky blue crowd?

The problem with such Big Questions is that they often prompt other smaller questions. Has Villa added enough quality? Will all the backline signings gel? And let us not forget the neverending questions over Gareth Barry's future.

At the beginning of last season, the issue was squad depth. Midway through the summer, it looked as if that could become an issue again. But, O'Neill hasn't spent his whole summer bickering with Liverpool over the transfer of his captain -- he's actually made some signings.

After choosing not to bring Scott Carson on permanently, the Villans desperately needed a quality 'keeper. The Northern Irish manager got two; the ever excellent Brad Friedel and the possibly excellent (one day) Brad Guzan. While Friedel isn't quite old enough to remember when the ball had laces on it, he is getting on in years. Yet, his form continues to be excellent.

Villa also brought in some reinforcements directly ahead of its net-minder, namely replacing the solid centerback Olof Mellberg (who left on a Bosman for experienced match-fixers Juve) with Curtis Davies (who was a target last summer) and the SPL-tested (ha-ha) Carlos Cuellar. Davies is young/promising (sort of) and Cuellar has shown his quality with Rangers (not to mention, European experience). O'Neill will miss the injured Wilfred Bouma for a spell, but has Luke Young and Nickey Shorey to shore up the full-back positions.

Also added to the mix is Steve Sidwell. After moving from Reading to rot on the Chelsea bench for two years, the midfielder is fresh out of suspended animation and ready to return to action. But, will his game suffer from hibernation sickness? Initially, I included him in my fantasy team (Go Clash City!), but have since had second thoughts and replaced him. Martin O'Neill, however, does not have this same luxury. It'll be interesting to see how he performs.

Speaking of luxuries, Villa does have some when going forward. John Carew, when not injured, can be a force to be reckoned with (13 league goals last term). Gabby Agbonlahor was no disappointment either, having chipped in with 11. Yet, surely the bright spot for Villa has to be Ashley Young. Included in the Premier League Team of the Year, the young winger has pace to burn and will most certainly improve upon his 8 league goals this campaign and beyond.

So, as it stands Villa haven't really gotten any worse. But, have they gotten better?

A lot of that will be answered by their captain, Gareth Barry. You don't need me to rehash the summer-long saga that's been his on-and-off again move to Liverpool. As it stands now, the England international is likely to stay with the Villans. I'd bet against a January move (since he'll be cup-tied) and there aren't many clubs willing to shell out £18 million.

But, there IS a reason for all this nonsense. There is a reason Martin O'Neill is fighting to keep him at the club. Barry was (and historically has) been inspirational and the driving force for Villa for years. His grit, determination and ability to play three positions (and play them well) -- left back, left midfield or center midfield -- makes him invaluable.

Aston Villa without Gareth Barry is not a Aston Villa that qualifies for Europe. At least not immediately. Having to replace him would be a pain the manager would much rather not worry about right now.

Sven's Prediction: I've said it before, but since I have no problem repeating myself, I'll say it again: I have the utmost respect for Martin O'Neill. Before Liverpool fired Houllier, I thought O'Neill would be the perfect replacement, but because of constant press speculation in the months prior to the vacancy, the Northern Irish man decided he was having no part in forcing a fellow manager out the door. Although England did well with Capello (well, we'll see), I also fancied him for that job. And since he's been at Villa, I've been rooting for his success. He hasn't disappointed.

Yet, I don't think the club is much, if any, better than they were last season. Nor are they any worse. Europe should be more than achievable, as there aren't many clubs outside the Top Four much better than Villa. Retaining 6th place is attainable, but I'll slot them behind Spurs and City and predict 7th. Here's hoping I'm wrong.

And, let it be said, as a Liverpool fan, I actually understand (and kind of side with) O'Neill's stance on the Barry saga. To say Rafa has been less-than-ideal in the way he's dealt with it this summer might be an understatement. Nonetheless, I hope Liverpool twat them in both matches, just to send a message.


Keith said...

That's a fair assessment, though, even with my homer glasses off, I'm not drinking the Spurs kool-aid; Nor, for that matter, City's

strong like bull smart like tractor said...

I can at least see why Spurs fans are mixing the Kool-aid. City fans are just drinking paint thinner and calling it Kool-aid at this point...

Andrew said...

Yeah, 6th is about right. It depends on if the backline gels right away or takes a few months to start playing well. I could see them sneaking into 5th with an improved home win % and getting points from winnable games away.


Cap'n Obvious

Keith said...

The thing about the backline is: Davies and Laursen played together from January through March, when Cuuuuuurtis popped his achilles. Cuellar>Prat Knight. Already.

So the center's fine. Luke Young's an instant improvement over Craig Gardner, and Shorey will provide decent service until Freddie comes back (and if not, there's always Gareth).

Friedel's a solid, solid, keeper, and did very well.

Keith said...

Villa shows Citeh how you handle a minnow; 4-1 away, while Trashcan Sinatra's baby blues go down 1-0 at home

BerbaBent said...

Barry played today so that should end the Barry to the Scousers talk. I believe Villa are quality and have a great manager. I would imagine their squad depth would be Villa supporters main concern. believe it or not I have not had a sip of Spurs Kool aid either. I believe Villa, Pompey, and Spurs could be battling it out for 5th as I believe Everton might not be as sharp this year. Can Yakubu lead their line? They will have to grind out a lot of 1-nil games in my opinion

Keith said...

Berba, it is and it isn't; O'Neill's activity in the last week has really quelled some of our concerns.

We've got three quality center backs now, plus Knight, and Osbourne's shown some facility in that spot in limited action.

Adding Luke Young and Shorey allows us to take two players who have played fullback (Gardner and Barry), and slot them in their favored central midfield roles. We do need cover for Luke Young, though.

Speaking of central mid, we've got quite the competition there now, with Barry, NRC, Sidwell, Petrov, Gardner, Osbourne, and Salifou all capable of starting and at least being passable. Petrov became a class holding mid during the run-in last year. Salifou's looked like a good distributor this preseason, in case Gareth should eventually go. He's known, BTW, as the "Togolese Zidane"

We're a little thin on the wings. Though we're not screwed if Young goes down, as Shaun Maloney, while not the player Webcam is, is certainly capable of giving most fullbacks fits. On the right, we've got, uh, Wayne Routledge. Though Jimmy Milner might be on his way back to the Midlands.

Up front, we could use one more quality striker. Carew's class, Gabby is great when focused, and Harewood's good off the bench. Delfuoneso's had a good pre, but is totally untested.

So there's depth there, but it could get better.

Mike Georger said...

fifth. shoulve had it last year had they not chocked. they have gotten a little better and everton got worse. dont think they can close the gap to fourth. as much as people dont seem to see it, i honestly think liverpool and arsenal have both gotten better. and i believe the gap from four to five was as big as one to four, and that was with liverpool taking the last month of the season off as well.

i think oneill is the second best manager in the league, and they will have a good season.

glad the barry shit is over

Andrew said...

I'll say it:

Aston Villa: Champions League; Liverpool will be out.

/two RUsty Nails in.

I'm off to Seattle for a few weeks tomorrow, hope none of you miss my comments. Best of luck with the Frist Saturday.

Keith said...

Georger, is your number one Sir Purple Face, or Big Phil?

Mike Georger said...

shocking, but i honestly believe its wenger.

how many other clubs would be okay with selling a 28 goal scorer because hes a product of the system? i honestly think he does more with less (settle down berbs) than anyone.

big phil can suck my ass and i will never EVER give ferguson credit for anything other than being one of the biggest cunts in the world