The beauty of pre-season is that everybody – no matter which team they follow, has hope that their side might win something, be it the league, a cup, promotion and if they’re a newly promoted team, avoid the drop. Even when things don’t look too good on paper, the summer is the chance to dream that this might be your year, that your team might just surprise everybody against all odds. This opening weekend might have strengthened some supporters’ dreams of upsetting the odds, but it may also have raised concerns for followers of other clubs.
Of course, there is no point getting too concerned about results and league positions this early. No disrespect intended to Fulham and Swansea, but I strongly doubt either of those will be in their current positions come May. What their results will have done though is filled the fans and players with confidence regarding their expectations for the upcoming months. It was a timely boost to Fulham and proves that they can be a strong attacking threat without Clint Dempsey. Swansea have shown they can be every bit as entertaining to watch as last season under new manager Michael Laudrup without any need to fear the dreaded second season syndrome. Their are other teams who won’t have come out of this weekend with as much positivity. Liverpool might be wondering if this could be another turbulent nine months for them following a 3-0 defeat to a decent looking West Bromwich Albion side. New Norwich manager Chris Hughton must have been as surprised as anyone to see his new team get spanked 5-0 at Craven Cottage, particularly after the highly respectable account the players gave of themselves last season under previous manager Paul Lambert.
My own personal priority area of interest of course though is with my own team. Aston Villa have experienced a lot of necessary changes throughout the summer, all of which have meant that fans are more positive following Paul Lambert’s arrival and with him new signings Karim El Ahmadi, Brett Holman, Matt Lowton and Ron Vlaar. The club have even managed to get a few players off the wage bill and it’s highly likely there will be more new blood in before the window closes – for this in particular I am thankful.
A disappointing opening day defeat at West Ham shouldn’t concern anybody too much. Lambert himself has acknowledged that his task at Villa will not be a quick fix and will take time before changes already made really begin to take effect. On a positive note, the players seem to have adapted quite happily to neat, passing football as opposed to last seasons hoof and hope approach applied by McLeish. The main concern with supporters who’ve been able to watch the team recently in pre-season and at Upton Park is the lack of cutting edge going forward. We don’t look particularly threatening going forward and I don’t think opposition defenders fear us too much when we’re on the attack. It’s fantastic to have Darren Bent back fit, but against West Ham he did mirror the player we saw at times last season before his injury, begging for the service he was provided with when he first joined the club from Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. It’s been said over and over again, but the club hasn’t replaced either of them. Charles N’Zogbia still hasn’t lived up to his potential, maybe things would be better in that department if he did, but Villa need someone else who can unlock a defence to provide Bent with the opportunity to do what he does best – finish. Assuming Paul Lambert does acquire that player, or players already at the club step up to the mark, he then needs to look at someone perhaps to partner Bent, or at least to provide back-up should he get injured or suffer a drop in form. Andreas Weimann looks to be a great talent, he might be the answer but he’s still relatively inexperienced at Premier League level. We do have Nathan Delfouneso – who has yet to show us that he can make it at the top level, we also have Gabriel Agbonlahor. He can’t deny that his form has dipped these last couple of seasons. In his defence, I don’t think injuries have helped, nor has being played wherever Houllier and McLeish saw fit as many of us are now wondering if he’s better as a striker or a winger and his problem may be that perhaps he’s not sure either anymore. Fans though see him as one of their own, he’s a Villa fan so he’ll always have the support of the crowd and hopefully with the new positive vibe around Villa Park they might be able to help lift him back into the sort of form he produced under Martin O’Neill. Lambert also needs a left-back, but I don’t feel this is quite as urgent, as he has players capable of filling that role if needed, such as Ciaran Clark, Eric Lichaj or he may even decide to give Enda Stevens a Premiership debut in the near future.
Despite the loss against the Hammers, the mood is still very positive amongst fans who at the very least believe they can’t have as bad a season as last year, and may even see a few more home wins. I think a mid-table finish could be a possibilty, and would provide a solid foundation to be built upon next summer. This weekend Everton go to Villa Park filled with confidence after their win against Man United on Monday, so it will be a tricky first home game for the new gaffer, but as long as the fans can see real effort going in (unlike far too many home games last term), they’ll stick with the team and the manager as the club looks forward to happier times.