Though Tim Sherwood's halftime speech was by all accounts a factor in Aston Villa's strong second half that saw them defeat Leicester City in the FA Cup last weekend, this afternoon's clash with Stoke City will truly mark the beginning of a new era for the team. Sherwood will be in the dugout, he's had a full week of training with the squad, and he appears to be more than willing to make drastic changes to the starting XI in order to put his stamp on the club. This is his team now, and with just 13 games left the results need to start coming right away. No pressure, Tim.
Sherwood's first test certainly won't be an easy one, but it's winnable. Stoke City are smack-dab in the middle of the table, 11 points clear of the bottom three and 12 points back of Europe. It's not the most exciting position, but it's certainly better than the one Aston Villa occupy-and if Paul Lambert had managed his side to a similar place, he'd likely still be in charge of Villa today. Talent-wise, there's not much gap between the two teams, but where Mark Hughes has the Potters playing as a bit more than the sum of their parts, the opposite has been true of Aston Villa. If the Claret and Blues are to avoid the drop, that has to change immediately.
A big part of that is going to be in getting the team to play with confidence, and in that regard Stoke are something of an unwelcome test. They're a team that make it difficult on their opposition, and though their defense hasn't been elite this season they're certainly a side that are going to make you earn every chance. For a team like Villa, who have managed to create plenty of half-decent opportunities but watched the frustration build as they've been routinely squandered, that will make for an interesting test; if Sherwood's arrival has energized the squad and given them a bit of hope and belief, perhaps that will show once the going begins to get tough against the Potters.
It will also be the first real chance to see what Sherwood's tactical approach will be. The second half of the Leicester game was likely an early indication, but with a week of training under their belt the team will surely have a clearer idea of what their new boss will expect from them. Will what's likely to be a more direct, attacking approach put greater pressure on a defense that's been largely quite good but also heavily protected? It's an interesting time, to say the least.
It's not exactly fair, but Tim Sherwood doesn't have the benefit of an adjustment period. Villa need to start picking up points now -they needed it start doing it at least a month ago, frankly- and though Stoke are a better team than Villa it's a result the club desperately needs. Failing to earn three points wouldn't spell doom by any stretch, but if the hope is to build momentum thanks to the renewed energy Sherwood brings to the club, it could be easily derailed by a defeat in his first game. It's a critical time for the club, and we're about to get our first indication of whether they've chosen the right man to guide them through it.