Aston Villa season preview

Posted by Kevin Hughes

AllsportChristian Benteke's goals helped keep Villa in the top flight last term.

What's changed since last season?
Significantly, this pre-season period has been the first in three years that Villa haven't been searching for a manager, so the club has been able to enjoy a measure of consistency lacking in recent times.

Coach Paul Lambert got a pretty accurate handle on his players during last season's trials and tribulations, so since the final match of 2013-13 he's been fine-tuning his squad rather than knocking it apart and building it back up again from scratch.

Lambert's transfer activity -- incoming, at least -- was conducted early on in the summer, with a host of new names arriving at Villa Park: Jores Okore, Aleksandar Tonev, Niclas Helenius, Antonio Luna, Leandro Bacuna and goalkeeper Jed Steer. Those deemed unwanted by Lambert were either swiftly released (Richard Dunne, Eric Lichaj) or told, unequivocally, that they no longer had a future at the club, excluded from training with the first team, and overlooked for friendlies. As a result, Lambert has created a tighter and more focused squad of players.

Key to this campaign?
Villa's attacking strengths are well known, and convincing Christian Benteke to stay at the club could have a huge bearing on the team's prospects next season. Alongside Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, Benteke gives Villa's front three a real threat and if the trio remain fit and in reasonable form, Lambert's team will cause any Premier League defence problems.

But the true key to Villa's campaign could be how the defence copes in the coming months. Villa were notoriously vulnerable for too much of last season, undone by individual errors and sloppiness at set-pieces. That has to improve, for Villa cannot again depend on the strikers out-scoring opponents every week. It will be fascinating to see how much difference Okore and Luna can make to the back four.

Predicted finish/realistic goal
A strong finish to last season shouldn't mask the fact that, for much of the campaign, Villa were poor and too easily beaten. It can't be taken for granted that Lambert's team will simply continue to improve on an upward curve, and the squad remains relatively inexperienced. Nevertheless, it wouldn't require a massive improvement for Villa to push into the top half of the table - 41 points earned 15th place in 2012-13, 46 points would have secured tenth. If Villa can set a points target of 50 and achieve that, eighth to tenth is a realistic finish. That should be considered progress for a club which has been more accustomed to operating at the lower end of the table for the past three seasons.

Make or break season for....
Marc Albrighton could be facing his last season as a Villa player unless his fortunes improve. The memories of his breakthrough, under Gerard Houllier in 2010-2011, are fading fast: back then, he was an exciting, emerging talent, a winger who needed no more than a little space to whip over a teasing cross, and who could also chip in with a few goals himself.

Since then, his impact has reduced with every year - there was the occasional bright moment (such as his goal against Arsenal in December) in 2011-12, but his personal contribution last season was almost negligible. Injuries have been a big issue, occurring with such frequency that Albrighton has been unable to get into his stride. But also, Villa now longer field a formation suited to his strengths; a conventional winger, the 23-year-old doesn't have a natural place in Lambert's preferred 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 set-up. He has ground to make up and his cause certainly hasn't been helped by missing much of the pre-season friendlies with yet another injury. He'll start the season on the back foot.

One to watch
Benteke is the obvious nomination here. After his 19 Premier League goals in 2012-13, expectation will be high and the way the Belgian has gone about his work since agreeing a new contract at Villa and re-joining the squad bodes well. There's been a determination and hunger about his play, as if he's anxious to emphasise his commitment and quickly repair any damage to his relationship with supporters. Don't be surprised to see Benteke challenge for the Golden Boot again next season. He can be close to unplayable at times. Villa's main man, for sure.

For a wild card, one of Lambert's new lads could stand out. Dutchman Bacuna, signed for around £1.5 million from Eredivisie club Groningen, has the game to catch the eye. A fast, physical, attacking midfielder, the 21-year-old has a fierce shot on him (his goal in the friendly win at Crewe was a beauty, curled in from 25 yards) and is confident enough to want penalty duties. He may not always start, but looks like he could be an impact player next season.

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