Aston Villa Football Club: 4 Young Villans Primed for Breakthrough Seasons
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With Aston Villa under new management and the playing staff in a state of flux, there is a real opportunity for a number of young Villans to stake a claim for a regular place in the first-team squad.
As things stand on the eve of Villa's Premier League opener against West Ham United, the squad is decidedly thin. With Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock reportedly informed by manager Paul Lambert that they will not play for the club again, the number of recognised first-teamers dwindles further.
Take away the injured trio of Marc Albrighton, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Richard Dunne, and it becomes imperative that Villa's fringe players and academy products are prepared for their first-team opportunity.
Gary Gardner: Central Midfield
Gardner in action against Arsenal in last season's FA Cup.
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After making his league debut on New Year's Eve last season, Gary Gardner became a regular member of the matchday squad and notched up 16 appearances over the second half of the season in all competitions.
Despite the extensive playing time, Gardner failed to make much of an impression as part of a poor Villa team. Whether this was due to negative tactics, mismanagement or simply a young man's nerves taking hold, Gardner seemed unprepared for the rigors of Premier League football.
However, Gardner is ready to impress in the upcoming season. After a number of composed performances in Villa's preseason fixtures, and with the benefit of a new manager willing to unshackle the team's attacking intent, Gardner has a chance to flourish.
He will most likely start the season on the bench, but expect the 20-year-old to serve as an able backup as he continues his development as a Premier League player.
Ciaran Clark: Central Defence
Composed on the ball during Villa's US tour.
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Despite already making 44 appearances for the first team, Ciaran Clark has yet to cement himself as first choice in any position. He has become a victim of a combination of his own versatility and the team's lack of options.
With stints at left-back and in central midfield, Clark's appearances as a central defender have been few and far between.
This looks set to change for the upcoming season. With the departure of James Collins to West Ham and the injury to Richard Dunne, Clark is seemingly guaranteed ample playing time in his favoured position.
The latest wearer of the No. 6 shirt, Clark is expected to be part of Villa's first-choice defensive pairing alongside new signing Ron Vlaar.
Samir Carruthers: Wing
Troubling Portland on the US tour
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Samir Carruthers is another player who could benefit from Villa's lack of depth. With Charles N'Zogbia and Marc Albrighton the only true wingers in the Villa team, Carruthers—who made three appearances, including his debut, last season—stands to be in line for some extensive playing time in 2012-13.
With Albrighton injured for the first few weeks of the season, it will most likely be Brett Holman or Barry Bannan filling the vacant slot on the right flank. However, Carruthers offers a different threat than his teammates.
With his direct, pacy and skillful attacking play, Carruthers will be looked at as a spark coming off the bench, counted on to inject energy into the Villa attack.
Barry Bannan: Central Midfield
Winning the ball against the Timbers
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Since making his debut in the Europa League in the 2008-09 season, Barry Bannan has gone on to make 53 first-team appearances.
Despite comparisons drawn by former manager Houllier to players such as Barcelona's Xavi and Iniesta, Bannan has struggled to make a consistent impact on the team's fortunes.
Following an inauspicious couple of years, there is a growing sense that this season may be Bannan's final chance to make an impact at Villa Park.
With club captain Stiliyan Petrov's absence due to his ongoing battle with leukemia, and the relative inexperience of Villa's other central midfielders, Bannan should have a number of opportunities to impress the Villa Park faithful in 2012-13.
Preseason performances should never be relied upon as guarantees of regular-season success, but there seemed to be definite signs of improvement for the diminutive playmaker, as manager Paul Lambert deployed him regularly in the starting lineup.