Aston Villa; a team who in the previous three Premier League seasons finished in the top six, find themselves in rapid decline only one point above the relegation zone, surrounded by constant media speculation of dressing room unrest over the Gerard Houllier regime. It is a nervy time for fans and players alike, however all is not lost at Villa Park thanks to three youngsters from the home nations. Ciaran Clark, Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan all have been earning rave reviews, with many believing this trio are destined for great things in the Premier League.
Barry Bannan a creative midfielder, was farmed out on loan to Derby County and Blackpool respectively before making his Villa breakthrough as a substitute on the opening day of this season. The young Scot was compared to the likes of Xavi and Iniesta by Houllier in the early weeks of his tenure, with many fans, pundits and the media, especially, ridiculing Houllier for such ‘outrageous’ claims: “he can read the game well and adapt well. I don’t think Xavi and Iniesta, who are outstanding players, are of huge size. They are intelligent; they have the skill and the desire. Young Barry has all of that.” On November 6th, 2010 Barry Bannan was handed his first start against Fulham and has never looked back. Houllier gave the Scot a run of games and Bannan was putting in performances that were beginning to back up Houllier’s ‘absurd’ claims that he was not far off the Barcelona playmakers (few would seriously expect him to reach the kind of standards that have propelled Xavi into Barcelona and Spanish history at such an early age anyway). Bannan cemented a place in the starting eleven, even when first team regulars returned from injury; he was playing with confidence and looking completely at ease dictating play in the middle of the park. Despite this, rather surprisingly, Barry Bannan was sent out on loan to Leeds United in March (with rumours circulating of a ‘tiff’ with manager Houllier). One thing is for sure though, Villa won’t want to lose Scotland’s answer to Xavi over a little ‘tiff’ and Bannan should expect to play a big part in Villa’s plans for next season.
At 6ft 2in, Ciaran Clark possesses all the attributes of a world class centre half; tall, strong, commanding and capable of popping up with the odd goal, rather like a certain John Terry, minus the much discussed off-field misdemeanours. Clark, a product of Villa’s academy, was an instant hit at Villa Park, with Garth Crooks naming the youngster in his team of the week after his debut in August 2009. Clark has played a handful of times this season and has shown his abilities in attack just as much as defence, having had to play in centre midfield as well as left back, due to injuries. Clark’s best position though, in my opinion, is as the no nonsense centre back; Houiller though, prefers to go with the experience of Richard Dunne and James Collins in the heart of the defence. Still, with the two players mentioned facing further punishment over their reported ‘speaking out’ at Houllier’s regime at Villa, it may be the ideal opportunity for Clark to regain his place as a first team regular (as long as he learns an element of composure; the young Irishman receiving yellow cards in seven consecutive games earlier on in the season).
Marc Albrighton; the answer to England’s left midfield problem? Only time will tell. Albrighton has been stealing the headlines this season up in the Midlands with his blistering pace, delightful final ball and never-say-die mentality. Houiller has shown a lot of faith in his youngsters this season, with Albrighton arguably being the most successful, contributing five goals and five assists to help the team’s cause. Furthermore, Albrighton has made a remarkable 27 appearances for Villa this season, an impressive number when you consider the presence of full England internationals Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, who can play in the same position. The England U21 international’s performances haven’t gone unnoticed either, if media reports are to be believed that Liverpool are lining up a move for him in the summer. Downing and Young themselves though have been linked with moves away, so it is imperative that Villa do all they can to keep hold of one of their rare positives from a season that all those associated with the club will want to forget.
Maintaining Premier League survival is paramount for Villa; then the rebuilding process can begin. If Villa maintains the services of the players mentioned above, they can use the trio as the spine with youngsters such as Nathan Delfouneso, Eric Lichaj and Jonathan Hogg thrown in for good measure.
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