2007/8 in a nutshell: Martin O’Neill’s second year at the Villa Park helm brought significant progress. A deserved 6th place Premier League finish resulted in qualification for the Intertoto Cup. An assessment of the style in which the Midlanders achieved their return to European competition can be gleaned from a glance at the goals for and against columns in the final league table – Villa outscored runners-up Chelsea (71), but conceded as many as 14th placed Wigan (51). As many – Señor Benitez in particular – noticed, Gareth Barry was the driving force behind the revived Villans, but significant contributions from creator-in-chief Ashley Young and line-leading John Carew were paramount in fulfilling O’Neill’s blueprint of high-tempo, attacking football.
Summer Activity: A slow start to proceedings has given way, of late, to a rapid influx of predominantly defence-minded reinforcements. Though clearly nearing the end of a career defined by a rarely-paralleled consistency, Brad Friedel represents a definite improvement between the sticks following the confidence-drained Scott Carson. Compatriot Brad Guzan will provide Freidel’s competition. Steve Sidwell should prove a valuable addition once he can shake off the ring-rust accumulated during a wasted year at Stamford Bridge. Full-backs Luke Young and Nicky Shorey (recruited in the aftermath of Freddie Bouma’s awful injury) are solid if not spectacular signings and can expect to slot straight into the first XI. Acquiring, from Rangers, centre half Carlos Cuellar for a reasonable £7.8m fee could be key in O’Neill’s efforts to shore up a back four prone to the odd Zat Knight-mare or two. Departures: ever-reliable Olof Mellberg will be missed; Patrik Berger and Luke Moore less so. Oh, and apparently a tentative enquiry has been tabled about ex-captain Gareth Barry’s availability by an, as yet, unnamed 3rd place-chasing Merseyside giant. You heard it here first.
Key Men: Barry, if he stays. Without Young’s set-pieces and tireless wingplay, Villa would struggle even to make an impression on the top 10. The ex-Watford man can expect to wriggle his way further into the plans of Fabio Capello if he can continue the rapid progress made during the past 18 months. Prospective new skipper Martin Laursen can continue to make an impact at both ends of the pitch. Friedel’s vast experience is sure to becalm an occasionally jittery defence; notwithstanding his excellent shot-stopping ability.
Rising Star: Nathan Delfouneso was one of the brightest stars of Villa’s run to last year’s Youth Cup semis. The 17-year-old Brummie offers a poacher’s presence and will hope to make a greater impact in the coming years than the now-departed Moore brothers, Stefan and Luke. He has been handed a place in the senior squad and the no. 14 shirt.
Manager: A canny operator in the transfer market, an astute tactician and with a passion for the role, O’Neill casts his recent Villa Park predecessors in the heaviest of shadows. The Ulsterman has once more given the Villa faithful a team of which to be proud and the natural progression would be to make a concerted challenge for silverware - at home or abroad. Of course, that is far easier said than done.
Prospects for 08-09: A repeat of last season’s exciting showing is desired; but Spurs’ expected rejuvenation and an improved Pompey squad will make finishing top of the Premier League’s unofficial second tier (5th – 10th) a tough old task. Progress in the cups has largely eluded Villa under Martin O’Neill’s reign, and they’ll harbour a not unreasonable hope of making a semi-final or two. A long UEFA Cup run though, may stretch the still under-staffed squad to breaking point.
Footballing World Prediction: 7th