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Villa set to open vital campaign against a Stoke City side in the midst of transformation

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about what's likely to happen this Premier League season; tomorrow, we begin to see how things will play out for real.

Paul Thomas

One of the greatest things about the opening day of the season is that it's the day that what everyone thinks will happen this season begins to stop mattering. Lots of people have opinions about how the Premier League season will play out; which teams they think will be in the title race, which teams will qualify for Europe, and which teams will face the drop. And since the final whistle blew on May 11th, they've been expressing those opinions. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this of course, and to imply otherwise would be pretty tremendously hypocritical. But talking about things that actually have happened is much more enjoyable than talking about things that might.

Of all the clubs people seem to have enjoyed talking about this summer, Aston Villa's pretty close to the top of the list outside of those with Champions League ambitions. The why is understandable; Villa's a big club with lots of fans, great history, and (somewhat) recent Champions League ambitions of their own that have fallen on some pretty hard times. Villa's decline is a story; a story fans of the club are doubtlessly tired of hearing about at this point, but a story nonetheless. And it will continue to be a story until they do end up falling out of the top flight, or until they put together a full season or two without ever being in real danger of doing so.

Will either of those things happen this season? Who knows! Lots of people-including a not-insignificant number of Villa fans-seem to think this is the year the drop comes. A seemingly smaller number are predicting a return to the blessedly boring life of mid-table obscurity. It could also be yet another year of hanging on by a thread, which is arguably the most (immediately) unpleasant of the three. But no matter what you believe, it's quite clear that Villa's an interesting club right now, even when their play on the field isn't especially interesting at all.

As unbelievable as it sounds, Stoke City are actually pretty damned interesting themselves. After years of plugging along as a reasonably successful punchline, things began to change with the appointment of Mark Hughes; Tony Pulis accomplished some amazing things (as boring as they may have been to watch) at the Britannia, but it was clear that his era had run its course. And though Hughes's squad was still largely composed of Pulis signings and retained much of what made Stoke unique in their previous incarnation, there was clearly a different look and feel to the side. The athleticism and physicality are still there, but there's clearly much more emphasis on possession and less reliance on set-piece play and possession-through-dead-balls. It didn't make Stoke fun to watch, exactly, but it was significantly more entertaining than in years past and it's difficult to argue with the Potters' highest-ever finish in the Premier League. And they now have Bojan Krkić, which is...something else.

And clearly, this is a huge season for both sides. It's not absurd to think Stoke could take the next big step in their evolution and make a real push for European football. And it's not hyperbole to say that this could be the most important season in Aston Villa's history since the early 1980s. Stoke-Aston Villa isn't necessarily a game that gets the neutrals or television network executives excited, and there's every reason to think that it could be downright boring, But it's the beginning of the story being written, and that's worth celebrating no matter what happens.