Just over three months ago, a listless Aston Villa side left Carrow Road on the losing end of a 2-0 result, the scoreline doing little justice to Norwich City's dominance. The defeat marked the end of one of the most miserable seasons in Villa's recent history; the club spent a good portion of the year in the middle of a relegation battle, and it wasn't until the 37th game of the season that they saved themselves from the drop. Alex McLeish had his side playing some of the worst football in the top flight. As if the struggles on the pitch weren't bad enough, plenty of awful things happened off of it as well, most notably Stiliyan Petrov being forced to leave the team to undergo treatment for cancer, Barry Bannan being charged with drink driving, and a nightclub row involving James Collins, Chris Herd and Fabian Delph.
The next day, McLeish was gone, and the only people surprised in the least were those that had become so disenchanted with the direction of the club that they'd begun to believe that Randy Lerner and Paul Faulkner were either blind or indifferent. Then came a brief and somewhat embarrassingly public courting of former Manchester United striker and current Molde FK manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Shortly after that whole bizarre incident fell apart Paul Lambert, the man that many Villa fans wanted in the first place, was lured from Norwich City. It didn't take Lambert long to set about putting his mark on the club, with Matthew Lowton, Karim El Ahmadi, and Ron Vlaar all moving to Villa. Perhaps even more telling, James Collins was shipped back to West Ham, while Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock have apparently been told to find themselves new employers.
All of this, coupled with Villa's play in the pre-season, has folks feeling pretty positive about things. It's easy to understand why; after the misery of the last two seasons, people are desperate for signs that things are moving in the right direction. When the signs are almost uniformly positive, it isn't surprising that the mood surrounding the team can change so completely in such a short amount of time. Of course, there's always the risk of folks getting ahead of themselves; Paul Lambert has done some wonderful things in his short time as Villa boss and there's every reason to believe that this season will be immeasurably more enjoyable than the last, but there's still an enormous amount of work to be done. The squad is still very thin and susceptible to injury crises, and there's a real lack of quality in a few key areas. The majority of Villa fans recognize this and seem more than willing to be patient, but there's always the fringe whose grip on reality is inversely proportional to their willingness to complain and unleash the full furor of the linen closet.
For that and numerous other reasons, a strong start to the year will be incredibly important. That doesn't mean Villa must head into 2013 battling for the Champions League, but it does mean that there can be little justification for poor results and underperformance. And though West Ham presents a challenge that's a bit more daunting than your typical newly promoted side, they're a team Villa should expect to take a point from at the very least, with the more reasonable expectation being a season-opening win. Were this still McLeish's team that expectation may well be different, but the days of leaving Villa Park and defaulting to a strategy designed only to preserve the draw are gone; any team managed by Sam Allardyce will make it their goal to prevent the opposition from playing anything resembling football, but if the mentality has indeed changed then Villa can no longer stoop to the level of the opposition.
That means going into Upton Park and playing football the way they did during the pre-season; patient, flowing, attacking football, with an emphasis on possession and slowing down the opposition's attack. West Ham likes to disrupt in defense and move the ball quickly from back to front, and it's a style that gave Villa fits (at least in the Premier League) while Allardyce was at Blackburn. For a team that's trying to emphasize possession and keep the game flowing as Lambert's Villa appear to be doing, it can be a very effective way to be put off rhythm. It's impossible to fully overcome that kind of physical play and change the style of the game completely, but the key is to take advantage of the openings you're afforded. Don't waste chances, apply pressure from set pieces, and most importantly don't get dragged down into the mud with West Ham. If this turns into a physical battle, the odds quickly shift against Villa.
In the defensive phase, the requirements are even more straightforward; keep the attackers (particularly Ricardo Vaz Tê) in front of you, and don't make things easy for West Ham on set pieces. The Hammers have plenty of big guys who are good in the air and the means to get them the ball, so keeping them out from corners and free kicks is difficult enough. If Villa fall prey to the kinds of lapses in the area that have plagued them in recent years, things can turn ugly very quickly.
West Ham is a mediocre at best team that will likely find it tough to climb out of the bottom half of the table for any extended period of time, but on any given day they can beat any team in the league thanks to how difficult they make things for their opponents. They're unlikely to wow anyone over the course of a full season, but they're never going to be easy to beat. In many ways, this is an ideal first test for Villa; they'll play much better teams, but to start the season against a side that can make things so difficult for teams like the one Villa are hoping to become will be an excellent litmus test. Paul Lambert has a footballing philosophy and a vision for what he wants this team to become, but he also strikes me as a very pragmatic fellow. If Villa can go to West Ham and dominate the flow of the game, that's a very good sign. If they struggle, things might need to be reigned in just a bit.
But no matter what happens, it's just a tremendous relief to be excited to watch Aston Villa again. By November of last year I was watching every game out of what felt like a sense of obligation. I seldom enjoyed it, and far more often than not I felt as though I'd been robbed of several hours of my weekend. Not anymore. I know there's a long way to go, and I know that there's likely to be more than a few unpleasant days this season, but the sense of excitement is back. I've missed it so much. Welcome back, Aston Villa. It's been awhile.