For much of the last two seasons Aston Villa have seemed to have been nose-diving towards relegation, but at 11/8 there’s a lot to like about their chances of seeing off West Brom and Stoke to claim the coveted title of top Midlands club in 2013/14.
Those two seasons were much alike in the way Villa spent much of them flirting with the drop, but in another sense they could not be more different.
2011/12 saw the Birmingham club groaning under the weight of the numerous over-paid, under-motivated senior pros that Alec McLeish had inherited from Martin O’Neill.
The Scot lacked the guile to turn the ship around and HMS Villa bored their way to survival on a miserable litany of eight draws and seven losses in their last 16 games.
A scorched earth approach was required and that was exactly what Paul Lambert did in 2012/13, bringing a bus load of young, modestly remunerated talent in to replace the complacent old guard.
Such a sudden and visceral change was always going to take time to bed in and so it proved – with Villa looking perilously close to relegation for much of the campaign, however the green shoots of promise for the future were numerous.
Brad Guzan, Matt Lowton, Fabian Delph, Yacouba Sylla, Andreas Weimann and of course 19-goal top-scorer Christian Benteke all earned themselves plenty of admirers during the course of the campaign and their ranks have been bolstered further by some high quality continental signings.
In picking up Sevilla fullback Antonio Luna and particularly centre-half Jores Okore – a target for Chelsea in the January window – Lambert has set about addressing the defensive problems which so undermined their attempts to scramble to safety last term.
With a young, hungry squad and the shrewd Scot in charge Villa look to be moving in the right direction, something which cannot yet be said for Stoke.
Tony Pulis’ Spartan footballing philosophy must surely still be deeply ingrained in the squad – almost entirely of the departed gaffer’s construction – that Mark Hughes has inherited and something of an identity crisis seems destined to ensue.
Hughes has come in off the back of an utterly disastrous part-season at QPR – in which his 31-year-old-heavy recruitment policy seemed to pay homage to Martin O’Neill’s misbegotten Villa park spending spree – so there is some doubt as to whether is new signings will freshen up a squad that have won just three of their 21 matches in 2013.
West Brom may have finished the campaign in lofty eighth position, but they ‘re somewhat flattered by that seeming proximity to the upper echelons, having finished 12 points behind seventh-placed Liverpool and a mere nine in front of Villa.
That points tally had much to do with a brief early-season burst of form that was as brilliant as it was ultimately unsustainable.
With Benteke’s goals and an improved defence, Villa are strongly fancied to post the highest Premier League finish of the Midlands threesome.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.