BLACKPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Marouane Fellaini of Everton appeals to the assistant referee during the Pre-season Friendly match between Blackpool and Everton at Bloomfield Road on August 5, 2012 in Blackpool, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Anyone that watched the season-opening 1-0 loss at West Ham would likely tell you that Aston Villa looked pretty good for two-thirds of the pitch and absolutely horrendous in the remainder. Against a West Ham side lacking both an interest and the means to apply a great deal of attacking pressure, it was very nearly enough to secure a draw. But against an Everton side with significantly more firepower that's fresh off of an excellent performance against Manchester United, a similar effort to that of week one likely won't come close.
As has been talked about quite a bit in the wake of the opener, Villa were in complete control of the flow of the game from more or less start to finish. They're not going to be able to do that against everyone, but there's little reason to think that they won't be able to do it against Everton. That's not at all a dig at the quality of the Toffees; they're a far better team than West Ham. But high-pressure midfield defense and Everton aren't exactly synonymous; they'll pounce on mistakes and buckle-down when the ball gets close to goal. Based on Villa's display in week one, it's tough to blame them; until given reason to do otherwise, most opponents will likely be happy to let them bounce the ball around the midfield without much concern. Possession and high pass-completion percentages are nice and all, but they only matter in context. Without a cutting edge, they're close to worthless.*
Clearly then, one key to a positive result in this game is going to be Villa's play in the final third. The talent to create is there and though the team is still adjusting to a completely new system, with Newcastle on tap next week the possibility of a three-game losing streak to start the season is very high unless Villa can figure out how to create pressure in the attack. That's going to be a key issue all season (until it isn't, of course. Sooner the better, guys!) Unfortunately, the attack isn't the only thing with which Villa must concern themselves; despite looking quite good against West Ham, this defense isn't an elite unit. They're still going to have struggles against dangerous attacking players.
Unfortunately, Everton has one of those players. They have a few, actually; Nikica Jelavić, Kevin Mirallas and Apostolos Vellios are all very talented players worth giving a bit of extra attention. But the player that stands out (in more ways than one) is Marouane Fellaini. The midfielder has been one of the Premier League's next big things for a few years now, but his time has clearly arrived. He was a force against Manchester United on Monday evening, play a bit of a hybrid target forward/attacking midfield role, showing vision and skill on the ball that one would not typically expect from a player of his size. His defensive abilities make him even more of a threat; having transitional play broken up in the opposition half is bad enough, but for Everton to field a ball-winner of Fellaini's quality just behind the striker is positively unfair. Good attacking midfielders are a difficult enough to handle; keeping a unique hybrid player like Fellaini in check is an even more daunting proposition.
It's not that this game isn't winnable. Everton is a good side that should be challenging for Europe, but they aren't as daunting a proposition as the very top sides. Still, it's going to be a challenge and it makes the opening-day loss to West Ham just a bit more difficult to stomach. With all of the positive energy surrounding Paul Lambert's appointment, a slow start to the season looks like it could be even more damaging than it otherwise would be. A strong performance and improvement on last week could go a long way towards restoring enthusiasm. But if Villa are as lacking in spark as they were against West Ham, that familiar sense of dread could easily start to creep back in.
*Obviously, they are important in and of themselves when they are a part of a team's overall defensive strategy. It's exceedingly difficult for the opposition to score if they don't have the ball. And it also looks nice, which is a plus. But in terms of results, there has to be an end product or else you're going to be seeing a lot of 0-0 draws and 1-0 losses, which I think everyone had enough of last season.