Following a few turbulent seasons in which relegation looked a near-certainty, the fact that Aston Villa were playing European football just three years ago has almost been forgotten.
During Martin O'Neill's tenure, the Northern Irishman guided the claret-and-blue outfit to three successive sixth-place finishes in the Premier League, which saw them qualify for the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League).
Villa's first outing in the Europe's second most prestigious cup competition was by far the most successful. Ajax, Hamburg, Zilina and Slavia Prague were Villa's opponents in a group from which they qualified. The Birmingham-based outfit eventually succumbed to CSKA Moscow in the round of 32, but that little taster left the club hungry for more.
O'Neill left just five days before the start of the 2010/11 season with three years of doom and gloom to follow. Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish came and went as Villa struggled at the foot of the league table before Paul Lambert was appointed.
Nobody expected miracles. And miracles they did not get.
For the vast majority of the 2012/13 campaign it looked like Villa were heading for the drop, but a string of results in the final few games ensured Premier League status for another year.
With his initial task completed, Lambert must now look to bigger and better things. Villa are, historically, one of the "bigger" teams in England, and with a long list of honours to their name that include league titles, League Cups, FA Cups and a European Cup, they should now be pushing to secure a place back in European competition.
With a fine foundation, a passionate yet sensible chairman, a solid manager and a great fanbase behind them, Villa must take the following steps in order to get back to the European scene.
Stick with Lambert
They say being a football manager is one of the toughest jobs going. In such a cutthroat industry a run of poor results, a few outspoken words or even the slightest disagreement with a member of a club's hierarchy can see a manager given the boot before they can say “P45.”
Every manager, upon being appointed at a new club, likes to put their spin on things; give the club a new identity, a new direction. But all too often we see managers turfed out without being given the time to even implement their ideas, methods and individual style.
For large parts of last season many were wondering and speculating as to whether Lambert would be given the time amid a succession of results that left Villa mired in a relegation battle.
Fortunately for Lambert, and for the club, chairman Randy Lerner stuck with his man. That paid off in the end, and it's something that the American owner hopes will pay dividends in the future. Lerner simply cannot follow in the footsteps of Mike Ashley, who inexplicably dismissed fan-favourite Chris Hughton, or Roman Abramovich who fired Roberto Di Matteo after the Italian claimed a first European title for the Stamford Bridge club. He must stick with Lambert, who clearly has a vision for Villa, and allow the manager time and funds—within reason—in order to succeed.
If he does so then the American just may reap the rewards.
Retain the services of key players
It is imperative that Villa keep hold of their star men.
During the recent years, Villa have seen the likes of Gareth Barry, James Milner, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing all arrive at Villa Park and make a huge impact. Subsequently each and every one of those players has moved on to bigger and better things—though the progress of Downing's career could be argued.
In black and white, Villa were simply unable to persuade the players to stay, with England's high-profile clubs beckoning. And who can blame them for wanting to leave? Both Barry and Milner left for Manchester City and have since collected a Premier League winners' medal. Young went to Manchester United and was rewarded with the same prize.
It's a quandary that many teams outside the "top 6" face when they have a star player on their hands attracting attention from some of England's and perhaps Europe's top clubs. It was a quandary that Villa faced this summer.
Following Christian Benteke's impressive debut season in which he scored 23 goals for Villa—19 in the league and four in domestic cup play—the Belgian was linked with a number of clubs, as Sky Sports' Sam Drury outlined.
With the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea all rumoured to be interested in the player, even the most optimistic Villa fan would have expected to see their latest star heading for the exit door—especially when he handed in a transfer request.
However, it seems that Villa have bucked their trend. Just 11 days after requesting to leave the club, Benteke signed a new deal that will see him stay in the Midlands until 2017.
A return to European football will remain a dream if Villa are unable to keep hold of their best players. But if they can continue to persuade them to stay, as they have done with Benteke, and carefully build a side around these stars then they'll go a long way towards achieving that dream.
Continue to have faith in the younger players
Villa, for years, have had one of the most formidable academies in English football. The strong list of youth team players have helped Villa to claim a number of honours in the recent years—most notably the 2012/13 NextGen Series tournament.
The likes of Gary Gardner, Nathan Delfouneso, Ciaran Clark, Andreas Weimann, Marc Albrighton, Nathan Baker and Gabriel Agbonlahor have all graduated from Villa's academy and have all had success in the first team.
And to complement the youngsters coming through at Villa, Lambert's additions during his relatively brief time at the club have all been of a similar ilk. The manager, due to certain purse constraints following the club's astronomical wage bill brought about during O'Neill's reign, has had to take advantage of his lower league and European knowledge. That, coupled with the club's excellent scouting system, has seen players such as Matthew Lowton, Ashley Westwood, Jores Okore and, of course, Christian Benteke arrive at the club.
Paul Lambert's unrivalled belief in the squad's younger players will be key if Villa are able to once again compete in the upper echelons of European football. These players must be given the chance to prove their worth. Of course, some will not make the grade, but the ones that do will show they are able to mix it with Europe's elite.
Turn Villa Park into a fortress
Nou Camp, Santiago Bernabeu, Allianz Arena, Old Trafford. These grounds all have one thing in common: teams do not like visiting them.
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, respectively, have made their home grounds into fortresses. And this is something required of a top European side. They know that if they travel away and do not get the intended result, they will always be confident of going back home and turning the tie around.
This is something Villa must do at Villa Park.
Lambert's men, in a season-long struggle, won just five matches at Villa Park last season.
And so far this season, they have lost their two matches at home.
Of course, breaking into Europe is merely a pipe dream for Villa at the moment, but that is their aim in the long run, and they need to start sowing the seeds now.
A determination and grit to win at home when it's looking bleakest is something that Sir Alex Ferguson instilled in his players when he was the manager of Manchester United. If they were a goal down then they simply knew that they had to go and score two—something they were inexplicably able to do more often than not.
This is something that Lambert will need to do with his side if they are to compete at the highest level. He will need to make sure that when Villa's name is pulled out during the draw, the first thought on the opposing manager's mind is one of discomfort.
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