With the imminent departure of James Milner, Villans everywhere can't help but wonder who will step up to fill his massive boots in the centre of Aston Villa's midfield. This article is predicated on the assumption that Stephen Ireland may well continue to be crazy and hold up the transfer with Manchester City. Since both the official site and caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald seem to be possessed of the notion that James Milner is still a fully-functioning member of Aston Villa's first team (and may in fact be in the squad for tomorrow's match), I'm not going to include Stephen Ireland as a part of this preview. Hopefully we don't have to deal with this problem much longer, but until then, you'll have to join me after the jump for a look at what we've got.
Steve Sidwell: First came to prominence as a result of Reading FC's fascination with marginally talented gingers (see: Kitson, David). Can probably start in the centre of midfield with Stiliyan Petrov, but definitely wouldn't start on most of the top ten Premiership sides, so hopefully he's not MacDonald's first choice. Sidders is blessed with an incredibly powerful shot that has an unfortunate aversion to the back of the net (3 goals in 41 appearances.)
Stewart Downing: Who'd have thought at the beginning of last season that Stewart Downing wouldn't even be the best ex-Middlesbrough winger in the Premier League? Putting James Milner's Future Teammate Adam Johnson aside, Stewart Downing showed a lot of promise during his time at Middlesbrough. He even went to Germany as a part of England's 2006 World Cup squad, although he was restricted to making appearances off the bench. We haven't seen too much out of Downing yet, mainly because he spent much of last season rehabbing a foot injury. He did begin to appear in the Villa starting XI near the end of 2009, notably forcing James Milner from the wing to central midfield. He began to show glimpses of his ability near the end of the season, but Villa will need him to step up dramatically this season and prove his worth.
Ashley Young: Our most prodigiously gifted player, Ashley Young is absolutely key to Aston Villa's success this season. Young failed to repeat his incredible 2008-09 season last year, notably missing a penalty that could have put Aston Villa past Rapid Vienna in the Europa League. When he's on form, he's as good as anyone. However, he's missing the final bit of consistency that would make him a star, and a nailed-on England starter. A more important problem is that, as Stuart James has so priggishly noted, Young's days in claret and blue could be numbered. Will he stay with the club for the coming season, or will Martin O'Neill's sudden departure force him into the waiting jowls of 'Orrible 'Arry Redknapp? We've started to see some encouraging signs, but I fear that we're not completely out of the woods yet.
James Milner (Allegedly): The less said here the better. Let's move on.
Marc Albrighton: The young winger seems ready to finally cash in on the twelve years he's spent with Aston Villa, and finally nail down a spot in the first team. He has impressed consistently through all stages of Villa's youth program, and has shone in Villa's preseason (especially against Feyenoord) and appeared in England's recent U21 victory over Uzbekistan. A place in the starting XI might be too much too soon for the twenty-year-old, particularly since Ashley Young and Stewart Downing comfortably occupy the starting spots on the wings. However, Albrighton will be given a chance to impress as a substitute and might well start in Villa's early Cup fixtures. To be sure, Marc Albrighton represents Villa's future. But if the rumours of player departures and financial belt-tightening at Villa are true, the future could be coming sooner than we think.
Fabian Delph: Another promising young midfielder, Delph made occasional appearances over the first half of last season. He even started on opening day against Wigan, partnering Stilyan Petrov in the centre of midfield. However, he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in training near the end of last season, and he is unlikely to return before January 2011.
Moustapha Salifou: The Togolese midfielder is loved by the Villa faithful, although that may have more to do with his chant-friendly name than for his actual quality. However, Salifou impressed at the 2006 World Cup, and it's fairly safe to assume that he was picked up on the strength of those performances. Salifou has yet to make much of an impact on the field, making four appearances and is still yet to score. His 2009-10 season was negatively affected by the Togolese tragedy at the African Cup of Nations in Angola, when the bus Salifou was riding was attacked by gunmen who killed three of the people aboard. Hopefully, Salifou can bounce back and finally break through this season.
Stiliyan Petrov: Our midfield stalwart and current captain, Petrov is a classic example of the underrated central midfielder, quietly distributing passes and making tackles when needed. There's a reason he was rumoured to be going to Liverpool as Javier Mascherano's potential replacement, and I'm thankful that those rumours haven't stuck. He really stepped up last season in the absence of Gareth Barry, and proved an able partner for you-know-who when he was shifted into central midfield.
Nigel Reo-Coker: Often mentioned when people make the claim that Martin O'Neill might have been a rather difficult character to deal with. Reo-Coker has not really appeared as much as you would think that the man who captained West Ham United to promotion should, but that might be more due to James Milner's emergence and a crowded midfield, rather than any supposed training ground fisticuffs. However, with O'Neill's disappearance and Milner's imminent exit, I guess we'll find out just where the versatile Reo-Coker stands. I'd like to see him starting over Sidwell, and he's probably the best partner for Petrov (at least until Delph returns.)
Isaiah Osbourne: A young midfielder that has not really done much on his spells out on loan to Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough. I wish I had more to say, but he's really been rather invisible.
Barry Bannan: Yet another young British player for Aston Villa, Bannan has impressed out on loan with Derby County and later helping Blackpool make their shocking run to the Premier League.
Jonathan Hogg: Young, British, Probably Going Out On Loan, Et Cetera, Et Cetera.
What I'd Like To See Saturday:
If MacDonald is going with a 4-4-2, which I'd guess is pretty likely, I want to see Reo-Coker partnering Petrov in the centre with Young and Downing out on the wings. However, Dan from Aston Villa Central has drawn up a 4-2-3-1 that I'm pretty excited about. Plus, it's an opportunity to reward Albrighton's preseason form, and I'd feel pretty good about that.