Club Focus – Aston Villa – Can Villa handle the pressure?

After another promising end to a Premier League season, finishing sixth, again, securing Europa League qualification, Martin O’Neill would have started the off-season looking towards strengthening his squad for the next campaign. However, the opposite happened. Veteran defender Martin Laursen announced his retirement, representing a huge blow to the Villa defence. Following this was the inevitable departure of influential midfielder and captain Gareth Barry – sold to big spending Manchester City for £12m. Even though O’Neill was quick to find a replacement for Barry in signing Stewart Downing from recently relegated Middlesbrough, Downing instead kicked off Villa’s injury-crisis being ruled out until December.

If there is something that seems to be bothering Martin O’Neill in this pre-season, it is the several big money signings that are being made by the Citizens. O’Neill not only believes that City will now join Villa and Everton in the challenge to try and break into the top four, he also believes that they are capable to challenge for the Premier League title as well. He stated that: “City may not be favourites to win the league but they should be,” and he indentified the club as a huge rival threat to Villa’s campaign next season. He even went as far as to say that the Villans need at least five more singings for any possible chance of a top sixth finish.

All the harsh realisations and doubts surrounding Villa seemed to coincide with an inconsistent start to the pre-season matches. The campaign began with a confident and assured 3-0 victory over Peterborough – Andreas Weimann, Curtis Davis and Steve Sidwell all on the score sheet. Villa then met a determined Colchester side in their next friendly and they were 2-0 down by the early stages of the second half. Colchester continued to pose problems for O’Neill’s men, but in the end a resolute Villa side showed their quality as a top division side and battled for a 2-2 draw. Sidwell bagged his second in pre-season and youngster Adam McGurk capitalised from Weimann’s parried shot. Villa showed signs of complacency, but nevertheless it was still a tough yet valuable workout for the squad.

Next up was a pre-season Peace Cup tournament in southern Spain, with the first game of the competition against Spanish outfit Malaga. All in all, it was a very poor match with very few chances and it was not until the 80th minute when Fernando scored for the Spanish side, Villa losing 1-0. The final group game came against Atlante and a 3-1 win with goals from Marc Albrighton, Ashley Young and John Carew and it marked the start of Villa’s return to form as well as qualification to the semi-finals. Despite the positive performance, Stiliyan Petrov dislocated his shoulder and is now doubtful for the start of the season. Another injury concern for the manager.

In the semi-final, the Villans expertly outclassed Portuguese champions, Porto , with a 2-1 victory. Emile Heskey scored Villa’s first goal inside 14 minutes with a close range shot and Sidwell showed his growing promise as a young midfielder, capping his brilliant performance with another goal. Hulk converted a 90th minute penalty for Porto, but it was merely a consolation goal.

In the final, Villa faced a strong Juventus side who has previously knocked out Real Madrid. Yet, neither side could find the opening and a goalless 120 minutes was the result. Goalkeeper Brad Cuzan was probably Villa’s best player with a number of important saves keeping O’Neill’s men in the game. The Villans later won 4-3 on penalties, with Cuzan the hero once more. Martin O’Neill will no doubt be pleased with his side’s Peace Cup trophy win and he will hope that his team shows the same mentality and craft in the upcoming Premier League season.

Most impressively Villa were without many first team regulars, such as Stiliyan Petrov, Luke Young, James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Craig Gardner in the tournament. Regardless of O’Neill’s concerns, he still has a very talented young squad. It is going to be extremely difficult to fill the boots left by Gareth Barry, but from Nigel Reo-Coker’s and Sidwell’s recent performances, the new partnership in the Villa midfield shows much promise.

As for the moment, O’Neill has just completed the signing of highly rated 19-year-old Leeds United midfielder, Fabian Delph. The Villans agreed a fee with Leeds United and Delph finalised the deal yesterday. Four more to go, Martin.

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