A crash course
Parma is a stunning historic town in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, but for most of its 100 year history, their football team was rather less storied. They flitted around the lower leagues in the early years until they became one of football's first nouveau riche sides in the 1990s with the takeover of local dairy giant Parmalat. Within years, they were challenging Italy's traditional giants for the Serie A title.
Alas, a scudetto proved out of reach, even for the great Parma teams of Hernán Crespo, Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro, but the big investment did yield three Coppa Italias, two UEFA Cups, and two further European trophies before things all went sour with the 2004 Parmalat scandal. Parma's owning company collapsed in the face of massive fraud allegations, with billions missing from the company's accounts. The entire board resigned, and the whole squad was made available for transfer.
Ever since, Parma have been a middling Serie A side rather than a serious challenger, and they were relegated to the second tier in 2008 before bouncing straight back to the top flight. The appointment of incumbent coach Roberto Donadoni back in 2012 renewed European hopes, and the former Italy coach guided Parma to an impressive 6th place finish last season -- though it's hard to see them repeating the feat this time around.
The current squad
Parma's solid finishes in Serie A recently have been rather worryingly built around a core of ageing veterans, including captain and centre-back Alessandro Lucarelli (37), midfield playmaker Marco Marchionni and striker Amauri (34) and the team's attacking star Antonio Cassano (32). That, combined with the departure of talented youngsters like winger Nicola Sansone, has been pretty worrying for Parma fans.
Fortunately, if pre-season is anything to go by, Donadoni is beginning a process of reinvigorating the ageing team. Argentine midfielder José Mauri and Italian striker Alberto Cerri (18) are rated as a couple of the top talents on the peninsula, and it's likely we'll be seeing them much more often this season. Ghanaian midfielder Afriyie Acquah, powerful forward Ishak Belfodil and former Real Madrid centre-back Pedro Mendes are also all under 23 and looking to establish themselves in the Parma first team this season.
How to stop them
If Parma's other pre-season games are anything to go by, Parma will shape up in Donadoni's favoured 4-3-3, and with a team that looks a bit like this:
Antonio Mirante; Massimo Gobbi, Alessandro Lucarelli, Gabriel Paletta, Mattia Cassani; Afriyie Acquah, Cristóbal Jorquera, José Mauri; Ishak Belfodil, Amauri, Jonathan Biabiany.
Sadly Antonio Cassano looks set to miss out through injury.
Parma under Donadoni have established themselves as very proficient on the ball, evident in their ball-playing midfield trio of Acquah, Jorquera and Mauri. None of those three players are tough tackling anchormen, and the deepest of the three, Jorquera, is an attacking midfielder in the process of being converted into an Andrea Pirlo-esque (admittedly a bit of an optimistic comparison) deep-lying playmaker, spreading the play wide with long, raking passes, and dropping into the defensive line to carry the ball forward. It's rare that you'll see Parma thump the ball long from the back line, so denying Jorquera time on the ball will be important for Villa.
They'll also have to watch the forward runs of right-back Mattia Cassani, who is much more attack-minded than his left-sided counterpart Massimo Gobbi. The same applies if the pacey youngster Stefan Ristovski is given the nod over Cassani. Parma's right side is considerably more direct than their left, with right-winger and West Bromwich Albion target Jonathan Biabiany always looking to get to the byline and cross. Sadly, his technique rarely matches his blistering pace.
In comparison, Parma's left-sided threat will come from Ishak Belfodil, who isn't anywhere near as quick as Biabiany but is about 10 times as powerful. Instead of crossing the ball he invariably looks to cut inside onto his stronger right foot, before lashing a shot at goal or threading through a striker or midfielder. Technically, he's probably Parma's best player, and a couple of seasons ago he looked one of the best talents in Serie A. Stopping him cutting in off the right and showing him down the line on his weaker foot will be crucial.
In defence Parma are a pretty compact side, who look to counter their lack of defensive pace by ensuring they have plenty of players behind the ball. Villa's defenders can probably expect to be pressed by the crociati forwards, though beyond Parma's first line, they'll have to work hard to find space.
Having said that, the flipside of Parma's possession-oriented midfield is that their naturally attack-minded players can be caught out of position. A central playmaker or a winger drifting inside could cause problems for Jorquera, whose defensive positioning still looks pretty suspect. The midfielders flanking Jorquera are little sturdier defensively, though they are charged with attacking runs into the penalty area, and so can be caught out of position on a quick transition.
Finally, quick strikers should be able to get at Parma's horribly slow defensive duo of Lucarelli and Paletta. They both read the game exceptionally well, and the former was one of Serie A's top players last season at 37 years old. However, against a pacey, direct threat they will still struggle. Young backup Pedro Mendes is much better in this regard, though it remains to be seen whether Donadoni is yet ready to put faith in the Portuguese youngster.