The wait is almost over. The season opener at Upton Park is coming, and Aston Villa supporters will finally see Paul Lambert's revamped side make their competitive debuts against West Ham United. But what can we expect from a club that has suffered through two underwhelming seasons since the abrupt end of the Martin O'Neill era? Are they ready to make a return to the top half of the table? Is it still a work in progress?
We here at 7500 to Holte have a bit of a pre-season tradition, in which I put together a bunch of questions and all of our writers answer them, roundtable-style. Over the years, it's begun to bloat, so we'll be breaking it up into a couple parts this time. First up: the state of Aston Villa. Check it out under the jump, and be sure to leave your own thoughts in the comments!
Aaron: Somewhere in the 8th-12th range. I think the relegation scares are a thing of the past (for now) but this is still a team with some significant problems and it's going to take a year or two to get back to challenging for Europe.
Andrew: I'm going to go ahead and predict an actual spot and stick to it. 9th. I think 9th is a position that every fan can feel good about and would consider it a major leap forward. More money for the club and Lambert and Lerner can continue to invest in Villa's return to European competition.
Gareth: I'm going to be conservatively optimistic and say 10th. It's easy to get excited about a new manager and new players, but this is still a work in progress.
Kirsten: 10th, but we won't have to fear relegation, which is my biggest wish for this season.
Matt: I'll be cautiously optimistic and say 11th.
Robert: No way they vie for a place in European competition, but I think there's a great shot at 8th. It's improvement!
How will Aston Villa perform in the FA Cup?
Aaron: Don't see an early exit or a deep run as being particularly likely. 5th/6th round sounds about right.
Andrew: Wouldn't be surprised at a 4th or 5th round exit. I think they lose to a Premier League club after an unfortunate draw.
Gareth: Fifth round, knocked out by another Premier League team.
Kirsten: Fifth round, losing to some cheeky Championship side.
Matt: Last 16, losing to a top half Premier League team.
Robert: It wouldn't shock me to see Lambert try to win over fans by going far in some competition, and since no one cares about the League Cup, it would be here. I think they make the quarterfinals.
How will Aston Villa perform in the League Cup?
Aaron: I could see them winning it and I could just as easily see them losing to the first Premier League team they face. The League Cup is as close to a crapshoot as you'll get.
Andrew: I told Gareth I was going to predict gloom and doom in the cups this year. So let's say they'll lose to Southampton early or something stupid like that.
Kirsten: Knocked out by Blackburn in the first round.
Matt: Last 16
Robert: Fourth round
Who will be Aston Villa's player of the year?
Aaron: I can see Darren Bent going absolutely nuts this season. With a manager that's actually willing to attack, 20+ goals wouldn't shock me.
Andrew: I'll go off the map a little and say Brad Guzan earns the #1 and comes into his own. America.
Gareth: I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Charles N'Zogbia has a breakout season. He's capable of brilliance, I swear.
Kirsten: Barry Bannan. DUH. And then he'll be sold to PSG next summer.
Matt: I think it's most likely to be Bent, but I'm going to go out of the box and pick Ciaran Clark. I've got a funny feeling about him this season.
Robert: I think it will likely be Darren Bent, but I'd love for it to be Karim El Ahmadi. It would be nice to see some stellar midfield play.
Which new arrival are you most excited about seeing?
Aaron: Karim El-Ahmadi. I have a feeling this will be a popular choice, but seeing as how he's the kind of player Villa have needed since Milner left it's a pretty obvious choice.
Andrew: KEA for sure. But I think I'm more excited about who Lambert hasn't brought in yet. Hoping to see two or three new names before the season starts - maybe someone more impactful than KEA. It's not totally out of the question.
Gareth: I'm looking forward to seeing what Karim El Ahmadi can do in the midfield, I feel like he'll add a dimension that Villa have been missing for a while now.
Kirsten: Brett Holman. Have you not heard his accent?
Matt: Karim, for sure. Of what I've seen of him so far, I know I'm going to end up falling in love with him.
Robert: I don't know why, but I'm irrationally excited to see Enda Stevens play, and I have been since he was signed last year. I've got no reasons for this though, so don't ask.
Who (or what) will be Aston Villa's biggest disappointment this year?
Aaron: Marc Albrighton. There's something of a perception that his struggles last year were in large part due to Alex McLeish, but he's been a pretty bad player for a season and a half now. I would love to see him take the next step and deliver on the promise he's shown in the past, but at this moment I'm leaning towards thinking that's unlikely.
Andrew: I'm ready to be frustrated by N'Zogbia again - mostly because I'm holding him to a very high standard that we've seen from him. I'm just not sure he's going to turn it back on for Lambert. He seems a moody type and I could see him getting phased out. That would suck.
Gareth: The continued incompetence of our defence. Hopefully, we'll learn how to defend against set pieces this year at the very least, but I'm particularly skeptical about the quality of our fullbacks.
Kirsten: The fans. Villa's supporters are not known for being patient, and if Lambert doesn't give them something to cling to in the first few matches, this is going to be yet another year of moaning and groaning.
Matt: I'm not sure if he can even be classified as a disappointment at this point, but I'll say Stephen Ireland. I hope Lambert can turn him into a more consistent player, but I'm not counting on it.
Robert: Shay Given. If Euro was any indication, he's not got much left, and I think we came to expect a pretty good level of play from his last season. Luckily, Guzan is back and I feel pretty comfortable with him as a starter.
How do you see this year going for Paul Lambert?
Aaron: Pretty well. I think there will be some grumbles from the more demanding segments of the fanbase when it becomes apparent that there's still a fair amount of work to do, but by and large I think the fans are going to be willing to show some patience. I think he's got the right idea as far as rebuilding the squad is concerned, so as long as the football is decent he should have a pretty long leash.
Andrew: If I had to guess, I think Lambert's got at least three full seasons here and I think he's going to thrive. By virtue of playing attractive football (read: more attractive than McLeish) he will enjoy his first season here. Next year all bets are off. People will want to take a bigger step.
Gareth: I'm glad he's got a honeymoon by the simple virtue of "not being Alex McLeish," but this is going to be a very difficult job for someone who hasn't been managing all that long. He's lucky that we have a very weak schedule to start the season.
Kirsten: As I said above, Villa supporters aren't known for their patience. Many believe we have a perfect right to be challenging for a Champions League position, and if they don't see that potential, the moaning will start. But I'm convinced he's safe for a couple seasons at least, which is what the Villa need -- a bit more consistency and a chance to build on an idea.
Matt: I think he'll do fine for someone taking over a team who finished 16th the season before. I think he will have a honeymoon/he's not Alex McLeish period, but I just hope that if Villa does have a patch of bad results, that everyone remembers that we stayed up by 2 points last season.
Robert: I think it'll go really well. Partially because he's not McLeish, but also because he's done and said everything right thus far. I get the sense that fans are buying in and that should give him some leeway.
Is there a big move remaining for Villa before the transfer window closes?
Aaron: I think so, yeah. I can't imagine going into the season without buying another center back. I think we're also likely to move a player or two.
Andrew: I think they bring in 2-3 more guys - I don't know if they're "big moves" but Ron Vlaar is a significant purchase. I really hope Lambert gets rid of Hutton, Warnock and Collins. If so he has to replace them.
Gareth: I imagine that the most notable activity will be the potential sales of James Collins, Stephen Warnock and (though I really hate to say this) Stephen Ireland.
Kirsten: I'm sensing more to come from the Eredivisie. I like the way Lambert looks at that league and finds decent buys. Will they be "big" moves? Not in the sense of a "big" name, but in adding value to the squad, no doubt.
Matt: Sure, if big move includes drugging Warnock and Hutton and dropping them off at the Stadium of Light. I'm not sure about anything massive, but I hope we see a couple more inexpensive KAE-type signings.
Robert: If there is, I can't see it being a purchase. Maybe we get rid of someone. Hopefully it's Hutton.