It's difficult to have foreseen last weekend's season-opening victory over Stoke City having gone any better, at least plausibly; playing away against a team that's notoriously difficult to face on their home pitch, Villa put in a sterling defensive performance and created some real danger, earning three points in week one for the second consecutive season. It was exactly the kind of result the club needed with a daunting run of fixtures just around the corner and plenty of uncertainty still in the air surrounding the ownership situation, and coupled with some encouraging signings and the promise of a few more still to come, there's a sense of (relative) optimism about this season that would have seemed impossible just a month or so ago.
But while three points are always a cause for celebration and Villa's efforts in the defensive phase of the game are legitimately worth praise, there were elements of the game that should be some cause for concern; a pass completion rate of just 67% is positively woeful, while Stoke's domination in the air-winning of 77% of all aerial challenges-is something of an alarm given that Villa are a team need to hold their own in duels if they're going to find consistent success. Possession percentage may be meaningless without context, but if you're not able to win the initial ball or string together more than three or four passes, it's going to be tough to win many games.
None of this is an attempt at doomsaying; Villa played well in a lot of ways and knicked a result that it would be uncharitable to describe as lucky, but many of the concerns from last season will not have been alleviated in any way by the manner in which they did so. It's unrealistic to expect stylistic evolution overnight, but there was little if any progress on display-the team were just more effective in their execution than they tended to be last season from late winter on. If Villa play like that more often than not, they'll probably be okay, and in a season such as this one "okay" is probably good enough. But it would be nice to see them win in a different manner just once or twice.
And on the surface, this is a good opportunity to do just that. Newcastle United looked pretty impotent against Manchester City in their opening game, and they're clearly a club in need of some improvement following a fairly epic collapse down the stretch last season. But despite a rough beginning to the year this isn't necessarily a side that look to be any worse than Villa, and though looking to past results is something of a fool's errand in terms of predicting the future, the fact that Villa are 1-2-5 against the Toon since their promotion back to the Premier League certainly doesn't make for a positive feeling going into the proceedings.
Given that this is game number two this season, it's more than tempting to discount whatever result comes down the pike. But results against sides like Newcastle matter, whether they happen in August or April. There's not likely to be a huge margin involved, game to game, in terms of how Villa perform without Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak, but of they can continue to find a way to eke out results without them, they'll enter into a very imposing run of fixtures with a pretty major leg up on where we thought they might be not so long ago.