Just over a week after it began, Aston Villa's start from hell is almost over. After Liverpool's visit to Villa Park this afternoon things calm down for a bit, with the next imposing game coming a month from now when Manchester City making the trek to Birmingham. When the fixture list was released there was a not-insignificant amount of worry that having to run the gauntlet of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in a week's time would knock a young Villa team off of its stride, with fears of a hangover effect the likes of which the team endured last winter coming to the surface. But though it's impossible to grade Villa's performance in the first week of the season until the whistle blows this evening, it's fair to say that those fears are significantly less justifiable after two strong showings in London.
Of Villa's three games this week, this is the one that most would have given the best chance to deliver three points. Though Liverpool was clearly a much better team than Aston Villa on the balance of last season the gap wasn't quite as big as it was with Arsenal and Chelsea and with Luis Suarez still serving his suspension for biting a guy for the second time in less than three years, they'll be missing their best player by some margin. Of course, seeing as how Villa managed to grab three points against Arsenal, it would be a bit strange to say this is Villa's best chance for a win in the opening week. But given the two previous outings, there's reason to believe Villa can end their August Premier League slate on a high note.
Liverpool is somewhat difficult to get a handle on; even without Suarez they're clearly a very talented team. They play a cohesive style and they do it quite well, but they often have a very difficult time of translating their quality into results. They are at this point still a work in progress not unlike Aston Villa, though obviously farther along and beginning from a much higher baseline. Last weekend's 1-0 victory over Stoke City is a clear example of that; the Reds were absolutely dominant in terms of the run of play, but it took Simon Mignolet's save of a Jonathan Walters penalty in the 89th minute to ensure that Daniel Sturridge's first-half goal remained the winner. If not for a fantastic performance from Asmir Begovic the scoreline might have been a bit more lopsided, but it isn't as though games of this nature have been a rarity for Liverpool in recent years.
After their approach in the season's first two games, it will be interesting to see how Villa approach this one. Though it wouldn't be quite right to say that Villa bunkered against Arsenal and Chelsea, they definitely took a more defensive posture than one might expect them to take as a regular practice. Will the absence of Suarez and playing in front of the home crowd compel Paul Lambert to loosen the reins a bit, perhaps swapping out Karim El Ahmadi for a more attacking option? Will Villa use a 4-3-3 from the outset rather than waiting to fall behind before pushing up the wingers from the 4-5-1? Or will the Lambert decide that messing with what has to this point been a pretty successful formula isn't the best idea? This is the kind of thing that makes the early part of a new season so much fun.
This time a week ago, most Villa fans likely would have bitten your hand off if given the opportunity to take three points from the opening week's games. The expectations certainly changed when the final whistle blew at the Emirates, but what was true before the Chelsea game is true now; if Villa can put in a strong performance even in a losing effort, it would still be reasonable to consider the start of the season a successful one. But if they can do one-or even three-better and get a result, it would be enough to make on consider shifting their expectations for the way this season is going to turn out. And if nothing else, it would certainly be one hell of a message to send to the rest of the league.