6 Aston Villa Players Looking to Bounce Back in 2014-15
As the exhilarating World Cup draws to a conclusion, the Premier League is gearing up for another year. Aston Villa's players returned to Bodymoor Heath on Monday to begin training ahead of the new season.
Several of the names involved in the first day of training served as a reminder for how troublesome Villa's last season was. A host of players took part in the training who haven't been seen in a Villa shirt in months.
Injuries played a crucial part in Villa's 2013-14 season and left Paul Lambert's team without key figures for long periods of time. Many of these injured men were among those at the first day of training.
These players, along with others who had difficult years for other reasons, will be greatly anticipating the coming season and hoping to improve upon their performances from last year.
Here are six Villa players who are looking to bounce back in 2014-15.
The injury may have spared Villa fans the potential of losing Benteke in the transfer market, but it also nearly saw the team relegated.
Benteke is the focal point of Villa's entire offensive system. Villa completely lacked a game plan or an identity without the towering striker for their last run of matches last season, highlighting his importance to the team.
Aiming to return to the pitch by September, Benteke will be hungry to reassert himself, and the Villa fans will be counting down the days until their star man is back in action.
There are many reasons Villa struggled mightily last season, but one often overlooked factor was the early loss of Jores Okore. The young defender was making just his second start for the club when he was sidelined for the entire year due to a knee injury.
Fortunately, Okore seems to have recovered well and is back training with the first team, aiming to be fully fit for the start of the new season. As one of Villa's top signings from last summer, his return could almost be viewed as a new player arriving to the club.
Okore is bullishly strong, mobile and confident on the ball. With experience, he has the potential to mature into a top-class centre-back, and the 2014-15 season will be a huge factor in determining if Okore can be Villa's next rock at the back.
Although he is entering his fourth season at Villa Park, Charles N'Zogbia remains a total enigma. The French winger has not consistently put in the match-winning performances that were expected of him when he signed from Wigan.
His future has only become further muddled after he missed the entirety of the 2013-14 season due to injury. Furthermore, late last season, Lambert denied N'Zogbia was out of his plans in response to swirling rumours of a rift between the two men.
With few creative players or wingers on the roster, Villa fans must hope Lambert is speaking the truth that N'Zogbia will have a part to play this year and that the Frenchman can finally show his quality in a Villa shirt.
Villa's 2013-14 season boasted a laundry list of injuries to key figures that helped to derail their season. Like Okore, the loss of Libor Kozak to a broken leg robbed Villa of one of their key signings from the summer.
Before his injury, Kozak had begun settling into life in Birmingham and had a decent start to his Premier League career. The Czech striker only managed four goals in 14 appearances, but he seemed to grow into the Villa team and had begun to improve his link-up play and understanding with his new teammates.
Kozak is not particularly dynamic, quick or skillful, but his height and instinct in the box have value to Villa, and he was greatly missed after his injury. The return of Kozak will deepen Lambert's options up top and offer Villa more angles of attack.
Gary Gardner quickly rose through the ranks of Villa's esteemed academy, following in the footsteps of his brother Craig. He was seemingly preordained to be a rousing success in the first team. Unfortunately, several long-term injuries have restricted Gardner's aspirations.
Last season Gardner was finally healthy, yet he was still unable to earn himself playing time, having to go out on loan to stay fresh and leaving some uncertainty if the young Englishman would be offered a new contract at his boyhood club.
Gardner has since re-signed with the Villans and has a tremendous opportunity to redeem himself by making a difference in Villa's anemic midfield.
He may not have the imposing physique or technical flair Villa could use in the middle, but Gardner has the ability to succeed, and he is still young enough to get his career back on track.
Once billed as Villa's saviour, Darren Bent has had an unceremonious fall from grace under Paul Lambert's watch. The former English international was infrequently played by Lambert during his first season in charge and was subsequently loaned to Fulham last campaign.
At this stage, given Bent's form and Villa's current stable of strikers, it is unrealistic for Villa fans to expect the 30-year-old Bent to fully live up to his record-breaking transfer fee. He struggled to impress at Fulham, managing just three goals in 23 league appearances.
Nonetheless, the striker will have a part to play in Villa's upcoming season, whether that part comes on the pitch or not. Bent joined many former outcasts for the first team's return to training this week ahead of a rumoured transfer move to Turkey.
With Villa's extremely constrained budget, any proceeds from a Bent sale—as well as removing him from the wage bill—would be a big boost for Villa. If he is not sold, then Lambert should be prepared to utilize Bent when necessary.