Can Christian Benteke lead Aston Villa to a successful 2013/14 season?
Aston Villa's 2012-13 season was nothing short of dreadful in many respects. They were in danger of being relegated for long stretches, but the 1982 European Cup champions held on by the skin of their teeth. It's easy to say they were eager to turn the page to this coming season.
Every Premier League season throws up an interesting twist in the plot. A new team emerging from the depths, an unheralded player making a name for himself or a team failing to live up to expectations are just a few examples.
Last season, the biggest success story was that of West Bromwich Albion. Led by manager Steve Clarke and star striker Romelu Lukaku, the Baggies finished eighth after spending much of the first-half of the season in the European places.
So, why can't Villa do something like this in 2013-14? They've got a number of positive things working for them as we look ahead.
The biggest—in more ways than one—is Lukaku's striking partner with the Belgian national team, Christian Benteke. His transfer from Genk on last season's summer deadline day slipped through the cracks, but he quickly became one of the steals of the window.
The goals just kept coming and coming, eventually totaling 19 in Premier League play and a further four in the League Cup. That impressive haul from a Premier League debutant was one better than fellow bargain Michu at Swansea.
As such, it is no wonder Benteke is being chased by top clubs across Europe, including Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Tottenham. But the Mirror reports that he would cost these clubs a hefty sum of £25 million.
This price tag, combined with the reinforcements Villa has already brought in to turn the team's fortunes around, should keep the Belgian at Villa Park. Who are these reinforcements? There's a pretty solid set of players that make up this group.
A couple of Danish players stick out, with defender Jores Okore of Nordsjælland and striker Nicklas Helenius of Aalborg both joining. Both players boast international caps for Denmark, while Okore also played in five Champions League matches this past season.
Okore should provide much-needed depth in central defense to aid captain Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark. And at just 20 years old, he can grow with this new-look team alongside some of the other signings.
Helenius, meanwhile, will add a secondary striking threat to spell Benteke when needed. The 22-year-old has notched 29 goals in 65 games over the last two seasons in Denmark—not a bad return from a player of such a young age.
Joining Helenius in bolstering Villa's attack is Bulgarian winger Aleksandar Tonev, who signed from Polish giants Lech Poznan. The 23-year-old has received praise from compatriot and Villa legend Stiliyan Petrov, as the newcomer seeks to have an impact like "Stan" or fellow Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov.
Further defensive signings joining Okore include Leandro Bacuna from Groningen and Antonio Luna from Sevilla. Bacuna is relishing the chance to feature alongside fellow Dutchman Vlaar, while Luna is excited about joining a "historic and huge" club.
On the surface, these are all fantastic signings. They are solid young talents to not only compete for starting spots right now, but to look to hold down those spots in the long run. The fact that they've brought in these players early on is also a positive sign.
Manager Paul Lambert will surely know that giving the new faces as much time as possible to jell in the squad will make for a better overall product. He has already emphasized this himself after a successful first training session, telling Villa's website:
"The new guys have come in. Once they integrate with the guys that are already here, then hopefully you have long enough to work with them, and by the start of that first, game you are ready. I think that is the great thing about it—we have that period of time where we can work with them up until we play that first game.
"We are hoping they integrate with the rest of the group. If they do that, they become stronger and better and they start to realize the pace of the game. That's why you bring them in early, to adjust really quick, and if they can do that, then they will be good players for the club."
A good start will probably be key for Villa, as they look to perhaps work off a solid finish to last season—five wins from the final nine matches. But a tough opening segment of the schedule–Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea are the first three matches on tap—could prevent momentum from building.
All in all, things are looking pretty positive at Villa Park. They've kept the key components of their team in place, as they ward off interest in Benteke, while also bringing in a slew of fresh faces to help them slog through the tough English schedule.
Where will Aston Villa finish in the Premier League?
More importantly, perhaps, is that they ought to come in with a positive mindset. Last year's successful fight against relegation surely lit a spark under the players, as they will want to avoid another such battle despite the positive ending they encountered.
The pieces are in place for Villa to bounce back closer to the upper regions of the Premier League table. All that's left for them now is to be "prepared" to execute their game plan and fight for 90 minutes on 38 occasions to achieve their goals.