It's incredibly hard to believe that the season starts today, but unless some sort of battle between superheroes happens in near-space within the next 12 hours or so, it does. Which is exciting of course but it's also a little bit scary, at least from my perspective. A lot of that is likely down to how much I've been focusing on this squad these past few weeks. And when I say focusing I mean on their weaknesses because that's just kind of how my brain is wired. But even the most optimistic of Villa fans would have to admit, there is at least some cause for concern with this team. It's not that I am predicting doom, because I think this season will be significantly more comfortable than last. But Alex McLeish has got some very interesting challenges to deal with this season. And the quickest way for McLeish to justify the board's decision in hiring him is to find a way to work within his constraints and win a lot of games. Simple, right?
Luckily for McLeish, the size of the squad isn't likely to matter all that much this week. Everyone is healthy and available, and Villa will have a first-choice squad on the field at Craven Cottage tomorrow. That's likely to mean that we'll get to see some of the players we're most curious about get the nod. The biggest questions surrounding this team at the moment are likely concerning Stephens Ireland and Warnock, and the odds are quite good that both of them will play. With Fulham being a side Villa shouldn't expect to have to play a negative style to compete against, it also seems reasonable to expect Villa to go with a more attacking approach and that's something I think all of us are curious to see from an Alex McLeish side in a competitive match.
Fulham are a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment; Mark Hughes is gone and Martin Jol has taken over, bringing with him high hopes for Cottagers fans. In terms of transfer movement though, it's been limited. Zoltan Gera headlines the players that have left (giving you a bit of an idea of the consequence of the remainder of the departures) while John Arne Riise is the only player brought into the club likely to make an impact this season. Still, there are some very dangerous players in this side and Clint Dempsey is chief amongst them. Dempsey is pretty well known at this point; a big physical midfielder with good speed and a nose for goal, he's the prototypical American attacking player at a level above what the country has produced in the past. A healthy Bobby Zamora will also be will also present some issues, as the big English striker is just as capable of flying past Villa's somewhat lumbering central defensive pairing as he is mixing it up and wearing them down.
The Cottagers can boast a formidable back line as well, with Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes holding down the center and Riise and Mexican international Carlos Salcido the likely starters on the outside. No matter the defensive unit Fulham trot out, it will be a difficult task to break it down. That's going to put a great deal of pressure on Darren Bent, Marc Albrighton and (presumably) Charles N'Zogbia to create chances and force Fulham to go on the attack, because if the home side get into a position to set up shop it will be a tough task for Villa to make much headway.
In the end, this is a winnable game but Villa aren't far enough ahead of Fulham (if indeed they are ahead of them at all) to count any result as too great a disappointment. In fact, if asked to make a prediction I'd say the most likely outcome is a narrow win for the home side. And while that's far from ideal, it would also be far from disaster. The days of Fulham as a side happy just to scrape by and survive in the Premier League are long past. They've quietly built a very good side down in South London, and there's no reason to think they shouldn't be considered a favorite to qualify for yet another season of European football. But it's still early enough in the season that results, while of course important, aren't the only things to watch. With a new manager, some very different personnel and a new style there are plenty of things to learn from this game. The reasonable amongst us are expecting some growing pains, but those can be learning experiences. This isn't the toughest start to the season Villa could be facing, but it's certainly not Norwich at home either. This is one of those games where the process is just as important as the result.