LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Davide Santon of Newcastle United talks to team mate Yohan Cabaye during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on August 25, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
One of the unfortunate things about transfer deadline day falling so close to the weekend is that the short turnaround makes it impossible for new signings to make an appearance. Aston Villa were incredibly active over the last few hours of the window, and we're all incredibly excited to see what the new boys can do, but we're going to have to wait another two weeks (the September international break needs to go away forever) before we see most of them in a Villa shirt. It's a bit like being a kid and peeking in the closet in your parents bedroom a week before Christmas; all of those toys, just sitting there unused. It's awful.
Of Villa's four signings made in the last few days of the window, only Joe Bennett and Jordan Bowery are eligible to play; whether they will or not is far from certain. Despite bringing in some major reinforcements, Aston Villa will be forced to take on Newcastle with largely the same side they fielded against Everton. And even in the best of situations, the trip to Newcastle is a difficult one. The speed with which Newcastle have returned to prominence following relegation is nothing short of stunning. Last season, when Villa looked for long stretches of time to be very realistically in danger of the drop, Newcastle provided something like comfort; some went so far as to say that perhaps a spell in the Championship could be just what was needed for Villa to get their house in order. I never quite bought into that line of thinking, but it's clear that having such a close call last season led Randy Lerner and Paul Faulkner to seriously re-evaluate a number of things.
It's beyond unlikely that Villa will enjoy such a remarkable turnaround. To be certain, the £35 million Newcastle received in exchange for Andy Carroll hastened the process. Yohan Cabaye, Davide Santon and Demba Ba all joined the summer after Carroll departed to Liverpool; Papiss Cissé arrived in January. All were signed for approximately half the fee Liverpool paid for Carroll. Lambert hasn't taken the same approach, but the thought process is arguably similar; focus on undervalued but still quality players that fit the system. It's a slower approach to success than that taken by the likes of QPR, to name one example, but it's far more sustainable and arguably has a much higher upside. Unfortunately for Villa, Newcastle's head start means that they come into this game with a great deal more quality and cohesion. Even if Ashley Westwood and Christian Benteke were eligible for this game, they're still prospects that have had little time with their new teammates. Newcastle has had a great deal of time to gel, and the players that have been most important to the club's renewal were already of a very high quality when they arrived at St. James' Park.
Which is all a very roundabout way of saying two things; first and foremost, it's going to be very difficult for Villa to take anything from this game. Though Newcastle's 2-0 loss to Chelsea was a disappointment, this is one of the league's better teams. They're likely to make another push for the Champions League, and anything less than qualification for Europe would be a major disappointment. An exceptional defense will make things difficult for a sputtering Villa attack, while the playmaking abilities of Cabaye and the threat posed by the like of Ba, Cissé and Hatem Ben Arfa will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the back line. No game is a guaranteed loss, but the odds are not in Villa's favor and an outright thrashing is certainly plausible. But the second point that needs to be made is that no outcome invalidates anything Paul Lambert has done so far. Getting this club back up to speed is going to take time. There will be growing pains. When people talk about players having experience, days where you're second best by some margin are a part of that. And on paper at least, Aston Villa is second best by some margin.
The real test is still to come. Based on what we've seen so far from Villa, it's clear that this team isn't very good right now. But one of the exciting things about a team that's so young and full of unknowns is the process of watching them grow. Before the start of the season, my expectations were slightly higher than what appears to be the reality. But once those expectations have shifted (especially this early in the season when there's no point at all in worrying about where you are in the table) it's much easier to watch the games in different ways. Look for signs of growth and progress rather than perfection, and games like this can become far more enjoyable. Eventually, the results will come with greater consistency. Maybe that's not what we were hoping for this season, but it's what we've got. And it can still be a lot of fun.