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Whoscored: Pleasant early Prem surprises

Southampton Sep 26, 2014
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Kevin Hughes Aston Villa  By Kevin Hughes
Aug 14, 2014

Doom-mongers don't see the bigger picture

Aston Villa have been tipped for relegation under Paul Lambert this season, with the future ownership of the club uncertain as well.

"Either way, barring dramatic events inside the next fortnight, I fear Villa will be battling the drop. A sad state of affairs. They will struggle to stay up at this rate.'"

- Phil McNulty, chief football writer, BBC Sport, predicting a finish of 17th

"My other team to go down would be Aston Villa -- I just don't think they've bought well enough so far."

- Matt Le Tissier, "Soccer Saturday" football expert

"Their squad and recent form suggest it will be a serious struggle for them."

- ITV Football, predicting a finish of 17th

"At the other end of the table, Aston Villa, QPR and Burnley are the teams expected to face the drop."

- The Mirror, using statistical analysis by Bloomberg Sports, predicting 18th place for Villa.

These are just a selection of predictions ahead of the new Premier League season, and it's fair to say the overall verdict on the fate that awaits Villa is damning. Several leading betting websites are offering odds of 3/1 for the club to be relegated, but is such criticism deserved?

It won't be easy. Expectations and ambition are certainly grounded after three consecutive seasons of toil at the wrong end of the table, and a place outside the bottom six may be as high as Villa can achieve. Don't worry, there's no offence taken -- very few Villa supporters are harbouring any illusions of anything less than a season of struggle, for that's what they have unfortunately become accustomed to.

Before condemning Villa to relegation, it's prudent to run a deeper analysis of the playing squad rather than just new signings. True, Paul Lambert has continued to work within a tightly defined transfer budget, but this summer has seen a significant shift in his thinking. His previous approach of almost entirely recruiting young and inexperienced players has not worked, so the manager has drafted in seasoned pros.

Philippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Aly Cissokho are not world-beaters but they add a depth to the squad sorely lacking in recent campaigns. If Lambert is able to complete a deal for Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez -- or a decent equivalent -- and snap up a further attacking player it won't have been a bad summer in terms of transfer business.

PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEWS

As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?

Yet the key to Villa's fortunes lies perhaps not with the new signings but the existing players within the club who will be available again. This is the point most have missed completely. Whether it's because of a change in club policy or a change of heart and mind by the manager, Alan Hutton, Darren Bent and Shay Given have been re-integrated by Lambert.

Hutton looks certain to start the season as Villa's first choice right-back, Given will challenge Brad Guzan for the No. 1 goalkeeper role and Bent has every chance of re-establishing himself as the team's starting centre-forward, at least for the first couple of months. Not just that, but Lambert can call again on Jores Okore and Charles N'Zogbia, while Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak won't be far behind. That quartet cost Villa almost 30 million pounds in transfer fees and they'll be back in play in 2014-15 after a forgettable campaign wrecked by injuries last term.

Finally, there have been no major departures from the club. Club captain Ron Vlaar remains, as does last season's player of the year, Fabian Delph. In assessing whether this Villa squad is better equipped for the Premier League than the one that competed in 2013-14, it's almost a nonstarter. The answer has to be yes.

So to Saturday, where Villa open with an away fixture for the fourth season in a row. In contrast to the misery predicted for the claret and blue, the opinion is that Stoke are in a good place. They finished ninth last season and apparently they're a decent bet for a top-half finish again. Villa were beaten at the Britannia Stadium last time out and indeed later embarrassed 4-1 at home, a defeat that precipitated an alarming slump in form.

Stoke manager Mark Hughes has had a fairly serene summer, able to add just a couple of new players to an already solid squad. Steve Sidwell, once of Villa's substitutes' bench, gives the Stoke midfield an extra goal threat, while the signing of Bojan Krkic -- formerly of Barcelona, Roma and AC Milan -- could prove a real steal.

Other than the obvious absentees like Benteke et al., Lambert has a full squad to choose from. He could play a 3-5-2 but more commonly opts for a back four, so if that's the case, one of his big selection calls will be who partners Vlaar in the centre of defence. Expect Cissokho to debut at left-back, despite not playing in preseason so far.

N'Zogbia and Jack Grealish will be pushing for starts but both might have to accept places on the bench. Lambert's approach is typically pragmatic and he is likely to prefer a tighter, more defensive setup for what will certainly be a very difficult start to the season.

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