Aston Villa's recent history has been a curious one. It's incredible to think that just three years ago, with the majority of fixtures having been played, a post-match interviewer was suggesting with a straight face that Martin O'Neill's side could win the Premier League. Although the Northern Irishman responded with a curt "Have you been drinking?", the idea didn't seem too ridiculous at the time.
Fast-forward to last season, and Villa had been stripped of their best talent, were flirting with relegation, only kept out of serious trouble by the incompetence of others, and serving up some of the most negative football in the league. If it wasn't immediately obvious upon his curious appointment, it's pretty clear now that Alex McLeish was the wrong man for the job. It was an odd choice, with dialogue from board members suggesting that they wanted someone popular with the fans, who was likely to be loyal to the club, before settling on someone who utterly failed to satisfy both criteria.
Now, however, the mood around Villa Park is far brighter, due to one man: Paul Lambert. His faded-jumper and tracksuit-bottoms combo will bring back memories of the O'Neill era at the very least, and the Scot knows a thing or two about changing fortunes. When he took over at Norwich, they had just been relegated to the third-tier and crushed 7-1 by Colchester in their opening fixture (a victory masterminded by, er, Paul Lambert), with fans tearing up season tickets in anger. After immediately guiding the club to successive promotions and a hugely impressive debut Premier League campaign, Lambert will hope he can transform Aston Villa in a similar fashion.
With Aston Villa seemingly in the grip of austerity as chairman Randy Lerner looks to put the club on a sustainable footing, Lambert will largely have to make do with what he has. Darren Bent's return to fitness will be an obvious boost, and he should remain a huge asset for the club, while he will also hope to get the best out of an array of promising younger talent from the club's academy, with players such as Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton and Ciaran Clark having broken through into the Villa first-team and looking like potential key players.
Other untapped resources at Villa Park include a host of players who have so far failed to deliver on their potential. Fabian Delph was expensively-acquired by Martin O'Neill from Leeds United, but has not lived up to his price-tag so far. Stephen Ireland has become an almost toxic presence since his signing, hailed as a coup at the time, and Charles N'Zogbia showed flashes of form only very briefly last season. If Lambert can bring these players back into the fold and coax them into the form upon which they were signed, then Villa will be a far stronger team for it.
It's probably too soon to expect Lambert to work any miracles, but the resources are there to put in a respectable showing. If, however, they prove lucky with injuries and Lambert can keep his key players in form, then the Europa League is far from out of the question, but their squad will have to punch above their weight to achieve much more than mediocrity. One thing is guaranteed, though - the football is bound to be much easier on the eye.
Last year: 16th; 7W 17D 14L.
This year: 12th, comfortably superior to last season, but still too soon for them to do anything meaningful.
Key player(s): Darren Bent -- Villa were short on creativity last year, but they have plenty of players to try and source it from. In contrast, only one player is going to be reliably scoring the goals. After missing a large chunk of last season, he's fit for the start of this one, and should be aiming for 15 goals minimum, because it's difficult to see where else they'll come from.
SB Nation Blog: 7500 to Holte