Aston Villa has avoided relegation by uncomfortable margins each of the last three seasons, finishing 16th, 15th and 15th in those campaigns, respectively, after placing ninth in 2010-11. Despite Villa’s impressive 3-1 thumping of Arsenal on the opening day of last season’s campaign and a 3-2 victory over Manchester City the next month, the squad quickly found itself floundering toward the bottom of the table.
Villa has managed to retain a spot in the Premier League. But the club will once again likely be fighting to stay afloat in the Premiership. Christian Benteke, who was forced to miss the World Cup after rupturing his Achilles tendon in April, gives the Lions a strong presence up front and is expected to return soon after the season begins. Villa only tallied 39 goals last year, fifth-worst in the Premier League.
Financial troubles have marred the Claret and Blue in recent years, and with American owner Randy Lerner hoping to sell the club, three of this summer’s significant acquisitions -- Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos -- were free transfers. More recently, Aston Villa signed defender Aly Cissokho, who played for Liverpool last season on loan, from Valencia for an undisclosed fee. Darren Bent also returns from a loan spell at Fulham. Adding to uncertainty at Villa Park was the surprise departure of chief executive Paul Faulkner from the club this summer.
MORE: Aston Villa's season schedule
Benteke and captain Ron Vlaar, who played an excellent Word Cup for the Netherlands, likely won’t be able to make up for deficiencies elsewhere, despite the growth of players like Fabian Delph and Ciaran Clark. Aston Villa has an opportunity to start the campaign well, with its first fixtures against Stoke City, Newcastle and Hull City. Failure to earn results in those matches could be disastrous: Its next five opponents are Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton. A slew of early-season defeats could send manager Paul Lambert packing from the Premier League. The only question is whether Aston Villa will join him when the season concludes.
Americans in the English Premier League
SI's Grant Wahl goes through the American players in the English Premier League this season.
KEY ARRIVALS: D Aly Cissokho (from Valencia), MF Joe Cole (from West Ham), D Philippe Senderos (from Valencia), D Kieran Richardson (from Fulham),
KEY DEPARTURES: F Jordan Bowery (to Rotherham), MF Marc Albrighton (to Leicester City), MF Samir Carruthers (to MK Dons)
PLAYER TO WATCH: Christian Benteke’s 19 goals in the 2012-13 Premier League campaign predictably fueled speculation that the Belgian would soon be on his way out of Villa Park. The Lions have managed to hold on to Benteke, but rumblings of a move have persisted.
Benteke’s scoring total dropped the last season to 10, but the 23-year-old has established himself as one of the Premiership’s most formidable strikers. The Belgian is capable of dominating even the most physical Premier League defenders, especially in the air, and he’s an excellent finisher. Benteke, returning from his Achilles injury, might be most interesting to watch off the pitch: Villa still wants to hold on to their star player, but bigger clubs would love to pluck him from Villa Park.
KEY STAT: Since Randy Lerner bought Aston Villa in 2006, the team had accrued £217.7 million -- or slightly more than $365 million -- in losses as of last May. That number alone might be enough to explain why the American wants to sell the team. Even though Villa finished in sixth place three straight seasons during Lerner’s early years as owner, the club’s subsequent regression has clearly taken a toll. “The last several seasons have been week-in, week-out battles,” Lerner said in a May statement announcing the sale. Perhaps no other words better describe the current state of Aston Villa.
STADIUM: Villa Park (Built in 1897; Capacity 42,682)
Used as a garrison for soldiers during World War II, Villa Park was bombed by Germans, requiring a wait of nearly 15 years until the northern end of the stadium was fully repaired. In the early 1900s, a cycling track circled the pitch.