After the 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on New Year's Day, there is the promise of something better on the horizon for Villa in 2014.
The reason for an injection of much-needed optimism among the claret and blue fraternity is a combination of factors. A first victory, after a disappointing run of four defeats and a draw in five games, since Dec. 4, was the major boost to player, manager, and supporter morale, but equally uplifting were the comebacks of Ron Vlaar and Christian Benteke.
These two are absolutely key to Villa, especially given the current make-up of the squad, and it's only really when both have been unavailable that their value has been recognised; with the pair restored to the starting line-up against the Black Cats, the difference was tangible.
Sunderland enjoyed the majority of possession but Villa's defence, marshalled calmly by Vlaar, restricted the hosts to just a single shot on target, while at the other end of the field, Benteke resembled, if not the same explosive player of last season, a version much closer to it. Hopefully now completely free of the hip and knee injuries which hampered him during the first half of the campaign, the Belgian's movement was freer and more fluid than seen for some time.
A goal would have capped a satisfying return, and Benteke was unfortunate to see his effort cleared off the line by Sunderland full-back David Bardsley. Instead, Gabby Agbonlahor was Villa's scorer, for the second match in succession, taking advantage of a defensive blunder to claim the only goal of the game early in the first half.
Same score as this fixture last season, and same goalscorer, too. After his neat finish at home to Swansea four days previously, this was further evidence -- if it were needed -- that, although Agbonlahor is always willing in a wide role, he's at his most effective as a central striker, either right on the toes of the last defender, or slightly deeper, where he can get on the ball, turn, and run.
As is the norm with Villa these days, the opposition had more of the ball, but that shouldn't take the shine off what was an effective, improved performance. Paul Lambert's team are not the most pleasing for the purists to watch, and perhaps never will be; on their day, however, this Villa side have a cutting edge which is hard to combat.
Against Sunderland, Villa created the better chances. As well as Benteke's opening, Marc Albrighton, on as a substitute, could have scored a late second. The margin of victory should have been greater than one goal, and Lambert will have felt vindicated somewhat after weeks of criticism -- this was the first time, in several weeks, he's been able to select close to his full-strength first X1.
Vlaar didn't finish the match, coming off with around 20 minutes remaining and complaining, it seemed, of a reoccurrence of his troublesome calf injury. Lambert was reasonably upbeat about his condition afterwards, and the Villa captain has a decent chance of making the league game against Arsenal on Jan. 13.
The FA Cup tie against Sheffield United this Saturday will certainly come too soon for Vlaar, though Lambert won't be overly concerned about that. Villa's manager has made it clear the league is the club's priority, and it's hard to take issue with that opinion when Lambert only has a small squad to utilise, and one eye still on avoiding the relegation quicksand. The FA Cup should provide opportunities for some of the players usually on the fringes of Lambert's plans.
There is sense in resting a few of those who have been overplayed recently; Agbonlahor, Andreas Weimann and Fabian Delph, while giving some game time to several players who could benefit from it. A start for Yacouba Sylla may be in order, and perhaps a senior debut for promising central defender Janoi Donacien, who was on the bench against Sunderland. Fit-again midfielder Gary Gardner deserves a run-out, with his contract running out in the summer, while Niclas Helenius must surely feature at some point.
Helenius has had a frustrating first half-season as a Villa player, with his chances severely limited, primarily because he's been usurped by another new signing, Libor Kozak. However, news has filtered through -- unconfirmed by the club, at the time of writing -- that the Czech striker has suffered a serious injury, possibly a badly broken leg, which would end his season.
That is awful news for Kozak, who had started to hit his stride at Villa, but for Helenius, it may open the door slightly. His manager should take a good look at him against the Blades. He has enough to ponder, in terms of player recruitment, now that the January transfer window has opened, without an unexpected search for a new striker to cover Kozak's absence. If Lambert doesn't turn to Helenius now, one suspects he might not for the remainder of the season.
The Kozak news, if accurate, is miserable news for the player and certainly puts a dampener on Villa's bright start to the new calendar year. It continues the narrative to the season -- one step forward, followed by one step back. Then again, it wouldn't be Villa without a but at the end of the sentence.