It seems like an eternity has passed since Aston Villa were literally beaten down into the Championship on the final day of last season by a score of four goals to nil at the hands of Arsenal.
By the time that Roberto Di Matteo’s new-look squad takes to the pitch on Sunday against Sheffield Wednesday, only 84 days will have passed since Villa’s most recent Premier League match.
So much has happened since then, with changes being made in nearly every facet of the club. New owner? Check. New manager? Yep. New players? They’re here.
From goalkeeper to striker, the image of this side is almost completely changed. Gone is Brad Guzan, here is Pierluigi Gollini. The 21-year-old Italian will get the nod to start between the sticks.
New arrival Ross McCormack will lead the line, and behind him will be a youthful midfield. With a proven goalscorer in the team (and one that’s multi-talented, unlike the aerial specialist Rudy Gestede), some of the burden to do everything should be shifted from the shoulders of Jordan Ayew.
Ashley Westwood may be the most familiar face on the entire pitch for Villa fans, he’ll be joined by Aaron Tshibola and perhaps Gary Gardner. Though Gardner is 24 and Tshibola is just 21, Di Matteo will be hoping their exuberance outweighs their inexperience.
Based on what we saw from the team in a handful of preseason friendlies, it looks like the shape will be a version of the 4-3-3. Jack Grealish and Ayew interchanged at positions on the wing behind Gestede, when Villa went with a strong lineup in these friendlies. McCormack should be a straight swap for Gestede, and the rest of the team will probably be unchanged.
Questions linger at the back, especially centrally, thanks to the wealth of depth afforded to the new manager. There are really four centre backs that could make a starting role their own: Micah Richards, Tommy Elphick, Jores Okore and Nathan Baker. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Jordan Amavi will have the required fitness level to take part in the action, but Joe Bennett has enjoyed a strong preseason and will be given an opportunity to make the most of a starting chance.
My guess is that Di Matteo opts for the seasoned veterans in Richards and Elphick, but this will by no means be set in stone, as the Championship is a long and arduous grind. Baker is primed for a breakout season, having returned from last year's loan spell at Bristol City with 36 more Championship appearances under his belt than he left B6 with.
Looking at the opposition, Sheffield Wednesday like to use a 4-2-3-1 formation. It's almost a mirror image of Villa's shape, but one midfielder will be more dedicated to the attacking phase of the game while two look to protect the backline for the Owls. In Villa's case, all three of the midfielders should interchange slightly more fluidly, although we can anticipate that Westwood may hang back a little deeper and look to find space that will allow him to spread the ball around the pitch.
Fernando Forestieri is probably the key man for Carlos Carvalhal's side. Playing in a withdrawn position behind the central striker, the Italian netted 15 times last season and assisted seven more goals. Barry Bannan will play out wide on the left wing, in a role that he made 22 of his 36 FLC appearances last year for the Owls. Both of his goals came when he was deployed on the left side of midfield. And up top, Gary Hooper is a striker with the quality to score at this level. It won't be easy for Villa to stifle this attack.
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Gollini; Hutton, Richards, Elphick, Bennett; Gardner, Westwood, Tshibola; Grealish, McCormack, Ayew.
Sheffield Wednesday (4-2-3-1): Westwood; Hunt, Lees, Loovens, Pudil; Hutchinson, Lee; Matias, Forestieri, Bannan; Hooper.
What do you think of the lineup? Who would you trust in your first game if you were Di Matteo? Let us know in the comments!