I refuse to put up a photo of Stephen Ireland in a City jersey, so instead I will use former City man Richard Dunne. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Aston Villa are at Newcastle tomorrow for the Toon's first home game of the Premier League season. Their 3-0 win over West Ham was a superb start to the season--but can the Villa follow up by collecting three points on Sunday?
I confess: When Martin O'Neill resigned not even two weeks ago, I lost a bit of faith in the team. I presumed that the disruption that came with the leaving of a manager not five days before the season began would be enough to rock any club. It may be too early to say this with complete confidence, but I should have had a little more faith in the players, faith in the way that Kevin MacDonald could lead them. A win over West Ham and a draw against Rapid Vienna shows that the Villa aren't suffering, at least.Villa fans have seen that this squad has talent. Although we may have packed up the James Milner jerseys this week, we went out and replaced them with fresh kits emblazoned with "Albrighton" and the number 12. Ashley Young has blossomed playing in the role of withdrawn striker (although calls for Villa to buy another striker have unfortunately not ceased). Stewart Downing looks like he might be a threat. Barry Bannan scored, for goodness sake. The Villa are playing as though a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.
But don't get to viewing the world through claret-colored glasses just yet, boys and girls. Aston Villa have a few weaknesses that need to be papered over, pronto--particularly that mess at the back. It concerns me that MacDonald started Habib Beye in the center against Rapid, but I'd like to think it was just a lack of options for the midweek game. Still, a quality right back needs to be purchased before the end of the transfer window, because Eric Lichaj isn't quite ready to be a starter yet. With both Carlos Cuellar and James Collins out again this week, it's probable that we'll see Ciaran Clark and Luke Young slotted in.
Gabriel Agbonlahor also remains on the injury list, so Ashley Young should be playing off John Carew. Carew had some, shall we call them, laughable misses last week, but to be honest we could be playing a 4-6-0 and I would think that our midfielders could find a way to score (knock on wood). What will be fun is seeing how Stephen Ireland fits into the squad. We've hammered home that Ireland is not a like-for-like replacement for Milner, but if Petrov plays deeper to keep up defensive duties, allowing Ireland the freedom to distribute and shoot, we just might not miss concrete-face.
And what of Newcastle? They were looking fine against Manchester United on Monday, using their physical attack to penetrate the United defense, although they were unable to finish. Once United scored, however, the Newcastle defense just sort of fell apart, allowing two more goals. After the half, Newcastle looked worn out and unable to press the United midfield, leaving United in complete control of the center of the field.
But the Magpies have something to prove. It was a loss to Villa that sent them into the Championship two seasons ago, and they certainly won't want to spend this season fighting relegation. Newcastle were undefeated in Championship play at St. James Park last season, and Villa haven't beat them there in the last four matches. This game marks the return of Premier League football to Newcastle, and they certainly wouldn't want to mark the occasion with a loss.