Squad depth hindering O'Neill progress
Having shown last season that they have the potential to be one the most impressive teams in the Premier League, Aston Villa have endured a summer of upheaval that threatens to put a dampener on their aspirations for the coming year.
With all the attention focussed on the future of captain Gareth Barry, Martin O'Neill's side face an uncertain few months, hindered by their inability to bring new faces to Villa Park.
Barry's protracted move to Liverpool has certainly dominated headlines this summer and, despite the passing of a deadline for the deal last month, it looks likely that the skipper will leave if Rafael Benitez can stump up the £18million asking price.
Villa, for their part, have no desire to see one of their most influential players join a rival side, but have been forced to concede defeat and the entire affair is likely to destabilise the club further for the coming season.
Having criticised his manager in a national newspaper, it is a shame that Barry's decade at the club will be remembered for his departure and the cancelling of his well-deserved testimonial. However, as bad the saga has affected the harmony at the club, it is nothing when compared to how his loss will affect their play on the pitch.
The heartbeat of the Villa midfield, Barry's performances since converting from a utility defender in recent years have been of the highest standard. Exciting times for Liverpool fans whose mouths will be watering at the prospect of seeing him alongside Steven Gerrard for club and country, but a bitter pill to swallow for those at Villa Park.
Captain, penalty taker and the team's major creative influence, Barry will be missed, but O'Neill must show the side that they can cope without him. Starting with his replacement.
The main addition to the squad, Chelsea's Steve Sidwell has arrived for around £5million. Sidwell proved himself to be a talented box-to-box midfielder during his time at Reading, but failed to establish himself among the stars of Stamford Bridge and will step into Barry's shoes in the centre of the Villa midfield.
Having notched up only seven games for the Blues, Sidwell now has the chance to blossom in a side that will sorely miss the influence of Barry and his ability to net goals from midfield should endear him to the fans. Spurred on by having to justify his inflated price-tag, Sidwell will hope to recreate some of the form that helped Reading up to 8th place in 2006/07 and made him one of the hottest properties in the League.
Villa have also strengthened in goal and with Thomas Sorensen's departure and Scott Carson's loan deal ending, O'Neill has turned to America to ensure that Stuart Taylor is not left as the only recognised 'keeper at the club.
With bitter negotiations over the Barry deal scotching any hope the Villans had of landing Carson on a permanent deal, the arrivals of 37-year-old Brad Friedel from Blackburn and 23-year-old understudy Brad Guzan have provided healthy competition between the sticks. While O'Neill may have placed more faith in the West Brom-bound Carson than his £3.5million price tag suggests, U.S stopper Guzan has shown enough promise to suggest that he will make the starting spot his own eventually.
Although he will have to wait. His fellow countryman Freidel has proven himself to be one of the most consistent 'keepers in the League with Blackburn and his experience will ensure that he starts the season in the #1 jersey.
But without significant investment from billlionaire owner Randy Lerner (who has ploughed £35million into the side since his takeover in 2006), Villa's transfer dealings do not suggest that they will improve much on last season.
Forced to made do with what he has, O'Neill has done well and has made a habit of turning his young players into Premier League stars. You need look no further than the rise of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor for evidence; pace is a vital attribute at this level, and both players have it in abundance.
Agbonlahor was thrust into the side as a 19-year-old in 2006 and has not looked back since. His pace and strength have made him a valuable asset for Villa and this season should see him cement his place in Fabio Capello's plans for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
Already firmly in Capello's vision for the future, Young exploded onto the scene last season after impressing in his first season in the top flight with Watford and, playing a free role, is Villa most potent attacking threat. A £9.75million price tag raised eyebrows at the start of his Villa career, but any doubters were cast aside as Young's pace, trickery and dead-ball delivery made him one of the League's star performers.
Boasting the League's third highest goal tally in 2007/08, Villa will continue to score goals when the likes of Young and Shaun Maloney are standing over a free-kick. In fact, they scored more from set-pieces than any other team last season and boast an impressive aerial threat - especially from corners.
With defenders like Zat Knight, Curtis Davies and Martin Laursen in the squad, height is not an issue; although the lack of players at the club is.
With the talismanic Olof Mellberg leaving for Juventus in the summer and Wilfred Bouma's horrific ankle injury picked up in pre-season, Villa's backline looks light. Injuries have played their part in the careers of Laursen and Knight, while Davies has just returned from a long spell out recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon.
With midfielder Craig Gardner left to fill in at right-back last season and youngsters Nathan Baker and Eric Lichaj making up the rest of the defence, Villa are in need of bringing in defensive cover. Nicky Shorey and Luke Young will provide good competition for places and O'Neill will be pleased that he has managed to bring two experienced players to the club, but realistically more reinforcements are needed.
They could also use some depth in the striking department too. 13-goal John Carew has established himself as one of the League's best target men and his presence will continue to cause opposition defences no end of problems; however, with Marlon Harewood as the only other recognised frontman, the club is in danger of missing out on the opportunities that a creative midfield will supply.
Hopes are high for youngsters Nathan Delfouneso and Tobias Mikaelsson, but Villa will need more than youthful exuberance if they are to challenge for Europe again this season.
With a paper-thin squad, the club are susceptible to injuries and unless there is a dramatic shift in their transfer dealings before August 31, they seem unlikely to be able to challenge for a top four spot.
Showing plenty of potential, the side still have enough quality to push for their 6th place finish of last season; however, with limitations that aren't within Martin O'Neill's control, Villa fans may have to settle for a period of rebuilding before they see any major improvement.