Under starter’s orders…

Dave Woodhall reports on Villa’s final pre-season preparations.

Into the final week of pre-season and things are starting to hot up around Villa Park. Not as hot, though, as the weather on the Texas tour, which saw Villa win both games they played as well as the prestigious BBVA Compass Dynamo Charities Cup with a 1-0 win over Houston Dynamos, the only goal of the game being scored by out of favour left-back Joe Bennett. Prior to this the team had beaten FC Dallas 2-0 with goals from Andi Weimann and Charles N’Zogbia. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing that the out of favour players have been the stars so far.

The team came back to a 3-1 defeat at Chesterfield, although this can partly be explained away by the lack of first- or even second-choice players in what was a predominantly young and inexperienced team. There was no such excuse in the Netherlands when Villa were well beaten 4-1 by Groningen.

Fortunately the final two games game of the training schedule saw an improvement. The annual trip to Bescot was the first chance for a large number of Villa supporters to see the team live and a 1-0 scoreline, the goal scored by Alan Hutton, could have been greater. Hutton has impressed throughout so far, Jores Okore seems to be over his injury and Fabian Delph was head and shoulders above the rest. Never mind Ron Vlaar, here’s one player we should be signing up on a lengthy contract.

This was followed by a home game with Parma, the pitch looking lush and the seats freshly polished. There’s always something energising about the first chance to see Villa Park again, even though the match was an uneventful affair. A scoreless draw at least showed some semblance of tactical and formation awareness as well as confirming that Villa’s problems are likely to centre around a lack of goals until Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak return. The biggest cheer of the day was reserved for the second-half entrance of Ron Vlaar, of whom Paul Lambert has said there hasn’t been any enquiries. Long may that situation continue.

Off the field Villa have finally paid out real money, a reported £2 million of it, to buy Aly Cissokho, another left-back, from Valencia. Cissokho was last seen in England playing for Liverpool last season, wasn’t exactly a rip-roaring success and we can only hope that he fits into the Vila aside better than he did on Merseyside. He’s certainly got the experience we’ve been lacking, having played for top sides in four European leagues.

On their way out are Jordan Bowery to Rotherham for something like £250,000 (why do clubs never say how much they’re paying these days? It doesn’t make any difference except being irritating) plus squad players Jed Steer and Daniel Johnson on three month loans. There are also strong rumours linking Aleksandar Tonev with a season loan to Celtic, possibly because of the Stan Petrov connection.

And so we enter the final few days of pre-season, which could be vital ones. A new signing, or hopefully two, will send us off to Saturday’s opening day fixture at Stoke with more optimism than might have seemed likely. Everyone knows Villa’s strengths, such as they are, and weaknesses. It’s only natural given what’s been going on during the summer that pessimism is the order of the day, but for Villa to see the season out in safety is perfectly possible although it will take a lot of ‘ifs’ to go right.

IF Delph and Brad Guzan and can maintain their form of last season, IF Okore and Vlaar can stay injury-free and consistent, and IF Benteke and Kozak can get back to fitness and form at the earliest opportunity, Villa will at least have a decent spine to the side. I’d rather not think about what might happen otherwise.