Fan Focus: The View From Villa Park

Michael Regan

We took some time to get the Villa perspective from Aston Villa Review host Chris Nee ahead of this weekend's crunch game in the Midlands.

On the face of it, Aston Villa have had a solid if unspectacular start to the season. Is that a fair assessment?

Chris Nee: It's spot on. Villa's record compared to last season is favourable in terms of both the first 12 games and games against the same opposition, but the simplest way of putting it is that Villa have done okay. The defence has improved, seemingly at the expense of a bit of fluidity, but progress has been steady and broadly encouraging.

Monday night's spirited comeback against West Brom made it three games without defeat for Villa. Does this leave you feeling confident going into this weekend's game?

CN: I am confident and I think the team will be too. At 2-0 down after fewer than 15 minutes, Monday night's game looked a lost cause. But this team has a lot of character and has started winning points from losing positions, and stopped losing them from winning positions. Most importantly, though, is that Ashley Westwood's goal has given everyone a huge lift. Thankfully the next game is upon us quickly and I'm hopeful Villa can capitalise on the boost that Monday provided.

The arrival on the pitch of Agbonlahor, Weimann and Delph certainly seemed to give Villa momentum on Monday. How important is this trio to the side and are they likely to start against Sunderland?

CN: Last season Agbonlahor and Weimann were crucial. Neither were prolific in front of goal but both popped up at crucial moments and underpinned that with endless effort and the tactical importance of their roles either side of Benteke made them vital. Both have suffered a loss of form and fitness this season and in truth their impact has been limited, which is probably one of the reasons why Villa are less dangerous than last year.

Delph played well in the last part of last season and has stepped up another level since August. Villa have missed him while he's been out and getting him back to full fitness will help steady the ship. Whether they start is entirely down to fitness, and throwing them into the second half on Monday was a gamble that was taken before they were fit to start a game. If they're genuinely ready, chances are Paul Lambert will start all three.

In contrast, Sunderland seem unable to build any momentum, particularly away from home, although some poor refereeing has hardly helped our cause. Do you see much to fear from our team? Any players who particularly worry you?

CN: There's something to fear from every team in this league for team's of Villa's relative lack of quality. Sunderland don't strike me as a team that will be a soft touch for too many opponents this season, and games between Villa and teams like Sunderland will go for us and against us this year. You have some quality that can damage us if it clicks. If your midfield can supply Steven Fletcher he's smart enough to trouble our defenders. It's also not unknown for them to struggle with players of Jozy Altidore's style and physique.

Most teams will look at Sunderland line-ups and pick out Seb Larsson as a threat from dead balls and fear that theirs might be the full back that finally gets a beating from Adam Johnson. I think that applies to Villa, but I'm most interested in seeing how Jack Colback has progressed.

After tearing us apart last season, Benteke is the man who concerns me the most in the Villa side, as does the pace of the aforementioned three who came on in the second half at the Hawthorns. Has anyone else impressed you this season, someone who you think can do some damage against us?

CN: We're fairly short on players who can be expected to do damage but we have had a few impressive starts to the season. Despite a poor debut and a shocking mistake on Monday Leandro Bacuna has quickly grown into a solid Premier League player and is likely to take any free kicks around Sunderland's box. It's the improved form of the defence that's really contributed most obviously this season, though. Ron Vlaar looks more comfortable this year, and Ciaran Clark has played well enough to rescue himself what many of us thought was a departure waiting to happen.

Individuals are perhaps less important than the team as a whole at Sunderland now that Poyet has begun to instill his tactical philosophy. Have you seen much of us since he took over? Any thoughts?

CN: Admittedly not a great deal, but it's fair to say there's been a small step up already and that you'd have got something from the Stoke game on another day! I suspect the transition from Martin O'Neill's approach, through Paolo di Canio, to Gus Poyet's philosophy is going to take some time; perhaps Di Canio's shortcomings left enough of a blank canvas for that to happen more quickly. I'd argue that Poyet should have been a summer appointment. After a poor start, I wonder if it might turn out to be a case of the right man at the wrong time.

I've always been impressed with Paul Lambert and thought he did a brilliant job at Norwich City. How do you rate his management thus far at Villa Park? Has he continued with the pragmatic approach he seemed to take while in charge at Carrow Road?

CN: He's pragmatic alright! I like Lambert a lot and many Villa fans do, but there's certainly a group who were joining the rest of us in calling for stability and patience last season but seem to have had only one year in mind. They're now demanding better results. This season Villa play less flexibly but concede fewer goals, a reaction to a poor defensive record last season. For me, he's done almost as good a job as could have been expected of him, with a few absolute stinkers thrown in just to make sure nobody - including the manager - gets too complacent.

Do you think Sunderland or indeed Aston Villa will get relegated this season?

CN: Villa should be fine, with a bit of luck, though I think we'll finish in the same region as last year. Sunderland's prospects are less clear but keeping Di Canio beyond May was a mistake in my opinion. I think Poyet has his work cut out making up the six-point gap to 15th while adjusting to the league, so I'm afraid you're in for a battle either way.

And finally a score prediction for this weekend?

CN: 2-1 Villa win. We should be in mischievous mood after Monday.

Thanks to Chris for some great insight. For more musings, follow him on Twitter @ChrisNeeFC and check out his weekly podcast over at Aston Villa Review. He also co-edits the fantastic IBWM.

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