To Villa Park then. Always a good away day? Well, the atmosphere can be decent, albeit the two-tier split helps little.  The view from the top deck is canny but the facilities are… shite. But still, it’s a proper football ground: “gimme a flat-pack” said no-one, ever.

Some decent memories from from 2013. A midweek winter win shortly before the January 2013 transfer window “slammed shut” was followed by an Autumn triumph. Vive la France.

Oops; just checked the team sheet. I could cry. I am crying. Krul; Debuchy, Colo, Yanga-Mbiwa, Santon; Ben Arfa, Sissoko, Anita, Cabaye, Remy; Cisse. The late great Cheick Tiote on the bench. Frittered away by the clueless idiots in charge. Sound familiar?

Those were the good days, and they were tempered by a few bad ‘uns. Relegation confirmed courtesy of a Damien Duff deflection in 2009, followed by a draw that virtually sealed our fate in 2016. Failed to score in both.

Anyway, I digress. “Sam this is a match preview” I can hear our digital overlord whispering.  Right so Villa then. They are a side on the up under Dean Smith. They were in decent nick last season before falling away, winning just three of their last eight. That still led to a 20-point improvement on their previous campaign, elevating them to 11th.

But they’ve lost their talisman, their prince. And for a princely sum too. Most support bases would be devastated at losing their key attacking force, and don’t get me wrong, the Villains weren’t best pleased.

There was though, a sense that over reliance could come back to bite them. A theory designed to heal wounds? Time will tell. Their CEO, Christian Purslow, was straight on the YouTube to keep the fans in the loop. Shades of Brent, but let’s be honest, we’d kill for communication of that ilk.

So Frankenstein’s footballer was to be replaced by a trio (not including Matty Cash doing his best “tonight Matthew I’m going to be” impression).

In came club-record signing Emi Buendia for a cool £30 million, with Leon Bailey and Danny Ings but arriving for similar fees. Fair play: no sitting in the corner counting cash. Swift and decisive.

Their start at newly-promoted Watford was anything but that. Smith fumed, reading the proverbial riot act at the break and accusing his men of lacking intensity in the post-match presser. Unacceptable he deemed it. It was an accusation that stuck. They were 2-0 down and waltzing, the 2,000-or-so in the away end looking bemused. The travelling army had arrived full of hope. They’re a vocal lot, although I still don’t get their “it’s your round my Lord” ditty.

Ashley Young was snapped up on a free and started in what has become an unfamiliar left-wing role. Circa 2009. that was acceptable but the days of Young cutting in and curling past the outstretched keeper (R2 on FIFA ’09 for anyone that way inclined) are long gone. I know, I know – he’ll do just that on Saturday now.

Matt Targett endured what must be one of the worst days out by a full-back in the PL history. Well, for forty-five minutes before his hook was slung. Chances of him starting against ASM? Villa fans will hope zero. If he’s there, we must go at him. More likely though, Young will slot in: they looked more solid when that happened on Saturday.

Buendia is a bundle of footballing joy but must learn to cope with the reduced space and ball time afforded by Premier League defenders. Time and again he was shut down and outmuscled at Vicarage Road. He was the Championship’s creator in chief last season, leading the way with 15 assists, while chipping in with 15 goals. There’s plenty of bark and more than enough bite too; twice he saw red last year, making it five across four seasons at Norwich. He has a top-tier campaign under his belt and is only 24. Expect him to come good.

Ings was a curious acquisition. Goals yes, but at 29 he is, at best, hitting his peak. Mind you, averaging a goal every 147 minutes for a bottom-half side over two seasons is decent going (22 in 19/20 and 12 in 20/21). He was full of running last weekend but isolated. He did at least get the chance to break his duck from the spot, ruling out any chance of that becoming a ‘thing’. He owes Adam Masina a beer for what was a needless challenge deep in injury time.

Leon Bailey only played the final thirty on Saturday, having been in isolation until the Thursday. He bagged 15 goals and 10 assists in all comps for Bayern Leverkusen last season. His 3.5 dribbles completed per 90 minutes in 2021 was 5th in the Bundesliga, and his average carry length (whatever the fcuk that is) of 6.5m the 9th best. His arrival lifted Villa generally, Craig Cathcart suddenly having some defending to do. An assist came when he squared for John McGinn to net a stunner, and had his late free-kick been a foot lower, a grandstand finish would have ensued.

As turgid as Villa were, we can’t expect that again. Douglas Luiz is set to return having been given extra time to recover from securing Olympic gold. He will add bite in midfield. Ollie Watkins too is likely to be back to partner Ings. We all know how good he was last season. Worth keeping an eye on Jacob Ramsey too, who arrived at half-time against Watford and looked lively, while Jaden Philogence-Bidace is another Academy graduate who might get a go at some point. He impressed in pre-season, with some tipping him to make the starting XI. Oh, and Tyrone Mings is the new skipper.

SAM DALLING