Villa's season starts here

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Villa returned to preseason training last week, but the next few days will see preparation for the new season rise another level in intensity. The squad has arrived in Germany -- without their star striker, of course -- for a week-long training camp which also incorporates the first three fixtures of the pre-season programme.

Tobias Heyer/Bongarts/Getty ImagesVilla's trip to Germany is a trip down memory lane for Paul Lambert, shown playing for Borussia Dortmund in 1997.

Given Villa manager Paul Lambert's knowledge of the country, cultivated during his time as a player at Borussia Dortmund, choosing Germany as a location is no surprise. Indeed, the squad's base is just outside Dortmund. Not that there will be any time for the manager to take his players on a sightseeing tour of his old haunts. Villa have a packed agenda in place.

The first of three matches is Wednesday, with Villa up against SV Rodinghausen, a club playing in one of Germany's regional leagues, Oberliga Westfalen. Expect that to be something of a gentle warm-up, but two days later, Bundesliga second division outfit SC Paderborn will provide sterner competition. Another second division club, VFL Bochum, are the opposition for the match which concludes the tour on Sunday.

Villa will be pushed. And that's entirely the point. This is not a tour masquerading as a PR and marketing exercise. It's train-play-train-play-train-play. A routine designed to get the squad together, in shape, and in cohesion with one another.

"The priority for us is to work," Lambert told the Villa website. "It is not a resort where you think the lads go to enjoy themselves. It is to work and if they do that really hard and keep it going, then they'll come back to England and they've got games here which will stand them in good stead."

Those games, back in the UK, start at Wycombe on Saturday July 20, followed by Luton on July 23 and Crewe on July 26 - three matches in seven days - then Walsall, Shamrock Rovers and finally La Liga club Malaga, the only encounter in the sequence at Villa Park. That match is exactly one week before the Aug. 17 Premier League opener at Arsenal.

The Rodinghausen fixture marks the beginning of a heavy programme of nine games in a month, and for Lambert, the next few days will be exciting. A first opportunity to properly assess the players he has chosen to play for him next season. Added to the group that reported back for the start of pre-season training on July 1 are those who had extended 2012-13 campaigns because of international commitments.

Ron Vlaar, Brad Guzan -- fresh after agreeing a new four-year deal -- Jores Okore, Yacouba Sylla, and Andreas Weimann have returned and will catch up with old friends and new team-mates.

The players who have not joined up have created more headlines than those who have. Last week, Darren Bent's omission was the big story. Now, it's all about Christian Benteke's transfer request. But while Lambert will wish the Belgian was involved, he won't be particularly missed by his fellow players.

Team-mates moving on? All part of the business. And footballers are motivated by self-preservation -- their place in the team, their role within that team. Benteke's absence simply opens the door of opportunities for others.

For Weimann, it may mean he's given the chance to play a more central position, his preferred role, in the coming matches. For one of the new signings, Nicklas Helenius, his prospects have just improved 100 percent. Maybe previously seen as backup for Benteke, now no longer. The Danish striker will have his sets firmly set on claiming, and keeping, that centre-forward's place. And for Jordan Bowery, things are suddenly looking up. Since Helenius arrived, he must have been thinking even his chances of making the substitutes bench looked in doubt. Encouragement afresh for the forward signed a year ago from Chesterfield. Motivation for all the strikers in the squad, Gabby Agbonlahor included, is to play well enough to convince the boss that maybe he doesn't need to find a direct replacement for Benteke.

After what has been a productive few weeks for Villa in the transfer market, followed by the bombshell of Benteke's announcement, players and coaching staff will be relishing nothing more than getting back out onto the pitch, and doing what they do best.

The season starts here.

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