Villa probably has the most under rated midfielder in Gareth Barry who continues to delight and surprise with his matchplay, meanwhile all under the radar. He is Villa's fulcrum and showed what he could do as they blanked Inter. This is the year that Martin O'Neill can bring forth his managerial skills that made him a Celtic legend after a rebuilding season as a number of players left the club.
If one had to pick a surprise team, it might have to be Villa. They have lost a duo of experienced Nothern Ireland players to Laurie Sanchez's Fulham. Steven Davis, their long time strength in midfield and Aaron Hughes, a versatile defender, have gone, as they became less influential under O'Neill.
The rejiggered Villans defense rose above themselves in forcing 17 draws and conceded just 41 goals is still intact with central defender, Olof Mellberg, their feisty heart and soul of the Villans still around. They must hope that Martin Laursen, the tall Danish defender who has been around for ages, but never played a complete season remains healthy, as Wilfred Bouma, at left back, continues to improve, after injuries and loss of form, forced Gareth Barry to take over the left back spot for many games. However, Martin O'Neill is understood to be close to signing a deal for central defender Curtis Davies, which should see the highly rated WBA player land up at Villa Park.
In midfield, Nigel Reo-Coker, the England U21 captain, recently transfered from the Hammers, whose lackadaisical performance under Pardew and Curbishley should turn around under O'Neill boosts Stillian Petrov, who started out very strong but faded as the season went on, in his distribution. The three pronged midfield is complete with Barry taking over dead ball duties
The attack shows glimpses of greatness and could have some future England squaddies with Gabriel Agbonlahor (tipped however to play for Scotland) and his devastating acceleration and Ashley Young, who provides a lot of assists. But the focal point is built around John Carew, the giant Norwegian national, a larger version of Didier Drogba, surprisingly nimble of foot, coming in for the injured Milan Baros. Carew and Young should have their first full season under O'Neill's tutelage. Marlon Harewood, another Hammer provides yet one more attacking option as does Luke Moore and Shaun Maloney.
This squad looks a lot more cohesive and it should have no difficulties breaking into the upper half of the Premiership. Tomas Sorenson is solid in goal and Villa might get another goalie talent in Hearts Craig Gordon. I agree with Barry, Villa should improve significantly this season, but is a still a couple of seasons away from a Eurropean berth.
Bottomline: Gabriel Agbonlahor is going to have a fantastic season. It will be difficult to keep him away from goal.