It might only be pre-season, it might only be the Peace Cup, but damn it feels good to win something, doesn’t it?! Winning can be a habit and there’s no better time to start this particular habit than in pre-season.
Simply taking part in this tournament would have no great effect on Villa’s season beyond being a good bonding exercise in the sun. But winning it, and winning it in the manner that they did, could well be the best thing that could have happened to Aston Villa this summer.
It’s been quite an epic journey in the last 8 or 9 days. From an anemic display in the loss to Malaga, through the defiant comeback against Atlante to the impudent defeat of Porto, this tournament had not been without drama for Villa even before this final.
Zat Knight flew back to England to join Bolton before a ball was kicked. Emile Heskey was knocked clean out within the first 10 minutes. We lost our captain elect when Petrov dislocated his shoulder. Martin O’Neill was sent to the stands. Ashley Young sparked a 22 man fracas which resulted in the ever-placid Heskey being sent off himself. Peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
But among the drama, some real gems were uncovered. Eric Lichaj, the 20 year old American that Villa casually picked up on their stateside tour a couple of years ago, was handed a surprise start in the opening game. Despite the loss and despite his apparent lack of judgement in the build up to the winning goal, he took his opportunity with both hands. Able and confident going forward, aggressive and swift in defense, he has established himself as an able understudy for Luke Young this season.
In fact, Young might have good reason to be concerned for his position. If Luke isn’t fit for the opening Premiership game against Wigan, I don’t think there will be too many eyebrows raised among the Villa faithful if Lichaj was handed a debut. He’s not the finished article by any stretch, but it’s easy to see what the scouts saw in America. Any more questions about the quality of scouting at Aston Villa? Didn’t think so.
Continuing the American connection, I think it’s fair to say that Brad Guzan has just won himself a veritable army of new fans. After the older Brad’s slight faux pas that gifted Malaga’s goal, Brad the younger was handed a start against Atlante. It was an ominous start when Curtis Davies inadvertently nutmegged the American, but Brad didn’t concede in open play for the rest of the tournament.
His game has improved immeasurably. He no longer looks like the frantic shot stopper with slightly dodgy positional sense. He’s now the rock at the back. The general barking his orders at his troops throughout the match. He’s settled into his role at the club and feels confident in himself.
He also happens to be one hell of a goal keeper. His concentration levels are not human, frequently bouncing on his toes, readying himself for a shot, even when the ball was at the other end of the pitch. This man will be going to the World Cup next year and can be a shaven-headed-monster of a goal keeper for the USA for many years to come. We need to hang on to him.
Sticking at the back for a moment; Carlos Cuellar and Curtis Davies. Both showed promise at times last season. Equally, both looked like Bambi on ice enough to raise concerns. The potential that these two could hit their stride and strike up a strong partnership came to fruition during this tournament. Don’t get me wrong, they still need some mentoring, maybe that’s why a statesman like player, like a Distin or Campbell perhaps, could be useful, but these two were immense at the back.
An unfortunate recurrence of Davies’ shoulder injury revealed another gem in Ciaran Clark. Clark came on to replace Davies during the game against Porto. He slotted right in and was barely noticeable (in a good way) for most of the game. As far as I’m aware, he played a major part in England Under-19’s qualification for the European Championships (I’ve read that he’s the captain) so I’m not sure why he wasn’t in Ukraine with Nathan Delfouneso, but their loss was very much our gain. Keep your eye out for him, he’s a great player and a natural leader.
The much maligned Nickey Shorey did well at left back. He was rarely beaten, although he may have been cut some slack from the opposition focusing their attacking intentions down our “rookie right”. Take nothing away from Shorey though, when the team needed stability and reliability from it’s senior players, he delivered. Shorey is often solid, if unspectacular and he was during this tournament, although he did make a few defense unlocking passes and also played as a winger for a period.
Stan Petrov kicked off his tournament as he finished last season – solid as a rock. He’s obviously going to be the next captain and has already cast a Barry-like shadow over the other midfielders. His injury, while unfortunate, did allow Reo-Coker and Sidwell to show what they could do as a central midfield partnership. Martin O’Neill has a selection headache when Petrov is fit again, that’s all I’m saying.
Ashley Young started slowly, but was soon the best player in Claret & Blue without looking close to his best. He picked up a trophy after the final for player of the tournament, or some such, but I think there’s plenty more to come from him. He’s now reached the status that the like of Porto or Juventus will single him out as a major threat and the next stage of his development is working out how to be as effective when the opponents know what you can do.
Up front, we saw Harewood briefly, but besides Carew & Heskey doing their thing, it was Andreas Weimann that O’Neill was keen to look at, going so far as to hand the young Austrian a start in the final. Weimann has some talent, but obviously has some way to go. Harewood clearly has absolutely no future at Villa Park.
MON lamented not having having Nathan Delfouneso with him in Spain and I think we, as fans, were also robbed by his absence. We need an energetic, hungry, natural born predator to be challenging our established forwards for their place and I personally believe that Nathan could be that man. With no Gabby, and Carew quickly needing a break each game, I think this tournament was custom made for Nathan to emerge from the reserves.
Nathan might have been in Ukraine, but we were treated to glimpses of his fellow academy graduates. Shane Lowry & Chris Herd both gave a very good account of themselves and we also got to see a little of Barry Bannan. All of them look like they could well be knocking on the first team door in the not too distant future. I would hope that the majority of Villa fans will no longer have any concerns if these young players are named on the bench, or even in the starting line-up, for the odd game next season. I certainly won’t mind.
By now you’ve probably realised that I’m saving the best for last. MON played a predictable midfield four in the opening game of Young, Petrov, NRC & Sidwell. When Heskey was knocked out he didn’t hesitate in bringing on Marc Albrighton. I wouldn’t wish an injury on any of our players, least of all a head injury, but with Heskey out I was pleased to see a natural, balanced midfield with Albrighton and Young bookending Sidwell, NRC & Petrov.
If Ash seemed a little subdued in this game, Albrighton was a revelation. Tenacious, fearless, confident. He looked to get the ball and do something with it. He did it too. He was whipping balls into the box from the touchline, from the byline, from wherever he had the ball. He was taking players on, beating them, once, twice, three times just for good measure. Oh yes, Marc Albrighton took his chance and shined.
Heskey was fit for the second game against Atlante, but sadly Petrov would pop his shoulder out. Again, MON sent Albrighton straight in, only this time on the right wing of four man midfield. Same result, only better perhaps. He linked up well with fellow reserve, Lichaj. He got forward, he crossed balls. He tracked back. He swapped positions with Ash. Is this guy really a reserve?!?
He scored the equaliser against Atlante and followed the ball into the net to get the restart going as soon as possible. He also provided the exquisite cross for Ash to nod in for the all important third goal. Seriously, if this guy for real?
By the Porto game, Albrighton fully deserved a start. Petrov out, the squad starting to look a little threadbare, it’s what is known as a “no-brainer”. Albrighton started, was fantastic from the get go and it was perfectly fitting that he would provide the opening goal for Emile Heskey. Emile later said that he knew Marc could provide a decent cross, he just needed to make the effort to get himself into a scoring position. That sort of confidence in the player from a seasoned international like Heskey speaks volumes.
And so today Albrighton got a start in the final against Juventus. From watching him play you’d think he was playing against Preston Reserves. Total confidence. He took players on, several times. Turning them left, then right, then left again, oh go on then, right once more, then he got his cross in. I commented somewhere, either here or Twitter, that he’s a crossing machine. He really is.
He also played on the left for a while, I’m guessing MON was testing him and I think he passed. Think about it. Ash gets double teamed all the time now, but what about if Albrighton is an equal threat down the right? What if Albrighton and Young can swap wings at will? What if the centre is staffed by an industrious pairing out of Petrov, NRC, Milner & Sidwell? What about when Downing is fit?
I’m starting to think that this season is looking very bright indeed and I still remain positive that there are another 4 or 5 decent additions coming.
The future is looking very bright. The future is looking very claret and very blue.