Things have started well for West Brom. In a season where the unspoken goal was likely to make a serious push for Europe, the early signs are encouraging; 10 points from 5 games, including a 3-0 opening-day thumping of Liverpool and an equally impressive 2-0 over a very good Everton side. A point at White Hart Lane is always an acceptable result, meaning that the Baggies only bad day so far in the Premier League was a humbling 3-0 loss to Fulham at Craven Cottage. But if you believed that West Brom was going to be an improved side this season, nothing they've shown so far should have changed your mind.
But they're certainly not invincible. I've little doubt that Aston Villa can beat West Brom (or at the very least snag a point) but that's entirely dependent upon which Villa side shows up. That Aston Villa have shown themselves capable of putting in performances like those against Newcastle, Swansea City and Manchester City is a clear sign that things are moving in the right direction; that Aston Villa have shown themselves capable of putting in performances like those against Everton and Southampton is a clear sign that this is still a very young team that will likely be plagued by inconsistency for much of this season. If you're optimistic about the way Paul Lambert is building this side, you're likely of the opinion that at some point Villa will begin to perform to their full capability more often than not. But even those with the sunniest of outlooks would likely admit that until they begin to string good performances together, it's incredibly difficult to know whether or not Villa is going to put up a fight.
After Villa's stunning upset of Manchester City mid-week, it will be interesting to see how Lambert chooses to approach filling out the team sheet. Some spots are very much a given, of course, with he back line almost certain to be untouched and Karim El Ahmadi and Christian Benteke's place likely safe as well. But every other position on the pitch is up for grabs; Shay Given, Charles N'Zogbia, Fabian Delph and Gabby Agbonlahor were all given a chance against City, and all performed well (to varying degrees.) N'Zogbia and Agbonlahor present the most interesting challenges for Lambert; it seems almost impossible to remove Benteke from the starting XI at the moment, which means the result of starting Gabby is likely a start on the bench for Darren Bent. And though N'Zogbia was one of the best players on the pitch and provides much of what Villa has been missing this season, he's teased us often enough that skepticism is understandable.
Personally, I'd play Gabby and Benteke up top with N'Zogbia getting the nod as well. Without Stephen Ireland in the squad, Villa need the kind of creativity that N'Zogbia is capable of providing. N'Zogbia may be the most frustrating player on the planet, but when he's on (as he was against City) he's absolutely brilliant. Sitting Bent would be a tough decision for any manager, but Gabby and Benteke worked so well together that you almost have to give it another go. (Alternatively, Gabby could play in Ireland's favored position in the hole behind the two, but that seems unlikely at best.) But realistically, none of these decisions are easy. Which, considering the state of the squad this time last season, is a bit stunning.
It likely goes without saying, but a win in this game would be huge. There is of course the rivalry aspect, which can't be discounted, but in terms of building on the momentum gained against City and improving Villa's league standing, it's secondary. Three points would put Villa firmly in the mid-table pack, and though it's far too early to worry about table positioning it's never too early to measure yourself against the competition. And given the expectations of the season and some of the low points endured so far, 7 points from 6 games and 14th in the table wouldn't be too bad of a situation for Villa to find themselves in at the end of September. But it's impossible to feel confident about anything right now, especially against a solid team like West Brom. Excited? Sure. But nervous as well. But hey, at least it's an optimistic kind of nervousness this season.