The toughest of starts for Villa

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesAston Villa will catch a bit of a break amid a tough early schedule with the likely postponement of their fixture with Juan Mata's Chelsea.

The reveal of the Premier League fixture list for the 2013-14 season will have thrilled and daunted Villa fans -- the team couldn't have faced a tougher start to the new campaign, with Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea officially the first three games scheduled for August.

- Premier League fixtures list

And although Chelsea's European Super Cup tie against Bayern Munich at the end of the month means the game at Stamford Bridge will need to be postponed and rearranged -- which is something of a relief, for a visit to the stadium which staged last season's 8-0 humiliation so early in the campaign and with the Blues freshly embracing Jose Mourinho's second spell is far from ideal -- respite is only brief. Manchester City visit Villa Park in September.

So, a challenging opening two games, certainly, but with positivity being the watchword of Villa's close season activity thus far, there is no reason to roll over and expect the worst. With manager Paul Lambert already strengthening the squad which finished the 2012-13 season in decent form, Villa are set up to integrate the new signings during the series of pre-season friendlies and therefore be well prepared for the real thing come August. And the corresponding fixtures last season were both competitive -- Villa losing 2-1 at the Emirates through a late goal, and falling by the same scoreline against Liverpool at home on Easter Sunday, having taken the lead. There's also the likely possibility that neither Arsenal nor Liverpool will have concluded their transfer business for the year by the time they meet Villa, so, in actual fact, playing the Gunners and the Reds so early in the season may be the best possible time.

Villa's opening match conjures up fond memories of the first game of the 2006-07 season. It was both Martin O'Neill's first league game in charge and the first Premier League fixture staged at Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium, and the sense of optimism and hope for the future that Villa carried with them that day was emphasised when Olof Mellberg put O'Neill's side ahead; the Swede earning the distinction of scoring the first ever league goal in the Gunners' new home. Arsenal levelled and the game finished 1-1, but the point got the O'Neill era off the mark, and any lingering hangovers from the previous miserable season were banished almost instantly.

Analysing the fixture list further, it's not a bad sequence of matches at all for Villa. Last season, results and form were particularly dark in and around the Christmas period, and so Lambert will be looking for his team to hit 2014 in a far improved position. A more productive first half than in 2012-13 is critical. There is encouragement. On paper, at least, Villa's matches in November and December offer a good chance of success: West Ham, Cardiff, West Brom, Sunderland, Southampton, Fulham, Stoke, Crystal Palace (at home, on Boxing Day, always a bonus) and Swansea. Champions Manchester United visit 11 days before Christmas (I lose count of the number of times Villa have hosted United in November or December, the timing seems set in stone) but other than that, there is nothing too intimidating.

And again, the finale to the season doesn't look significantly tough. March 2014 is a stinker -- both Manchester clubs and Chelsea -- but April and May contain games which are about as kind as Villa could have wished for. Expectations should be aimed higher next season than merely avoiding relegation -- which Villa have flirted with over the last three campaigns -- but if the team finds itself in the same situation again, and still in danger of the drop in the final weeks, the concluding six fixtures would seem mainly winnable. April sees Fulham and Southampton at home, Palace and Swansea away, while in May, Villa host Hull before finishing with a difficult trip to Spurs at White Hart Lane.

Individual matches become more meaningful as the season progresses, given the circumstances, but Villa fans will certainly be underlining West Brom in red -- the Baggies usurped Villa as the top team in the Midlands last season and a quick reversal of that status is high up on the wish list. Villa go to the Hawthorns on November 23, and welcome West Brom to Villa Park on January 28, an evening kick-off.

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