QPR v Aston Villa preview: Battling Alex McLeish has the gift of the Gab
Agbonlahor is the dangerman as unbeaten Villa come to Loftus Road
Five games of a new season is not a long time in which to silence your critics, particularly when those critics make up a significant section of a club’s fanbase. Yet new Aston Villa boss Alex McLeish may just feel that he’s managed it.
When McLeish became the first ever manager to move from Birmingham City to Aston Villa three months ago, the move was met with a volatile reaction from some quarters of the Villa faithful.“Bluenose scum not welcome”, adorned the training ground wall.
Nor was it an easy start to life in the Villa hot-seat for McLeish. Just six days after his arrival, the Scotsman had to watch prized winger Ashley Young complete his switch to Manchester United in a �17 million deal, before his midfield options were further reduced as Stewart Downing moved to Liverpool for �20 million.
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His response was swift, signing Wigan wide-man Charles N’Zogbia, goalkeeper Shay Given from Manchester City, Tottenham midfielder Jermaine Jenas on loan and Alan Hutton permanently, all of whom have featured in a start to the season which has been solid, if hardly spectacular.
Following a 0-0 draw at Fulham on the opening day, Villa picked up a useful point against Everton at Goodison Park, but have also suffered two frustrating stalemates at home; 0-0 with Wolves and 1-1 with Newcastle on Saturday.
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That has left Villa sixth in the Premier League table, and the smattering of boos at full-time on Saturday suggested that the home fans are, if not exactly appeased, less unhappy with the situation than they were under McLeish’s largely unpopular predecessor Gerard Houllier.
“I understand the boos. It’s a home game and I was expecting to win after the start we made. We are all a bit frustrated,” said McLeish who, after watching five former Villa players in Downing, Young, Gareth Barry, James Milner and Gary Cahill, line up for England recently, admitted his side cannot match the likes of Manchester United, City and Chelsea in the transfer window.
McLeish must instead look to the likes of youngsters Ciaran Clark, Marc Albrighton and promising Scotland international Barry Bannan, who made his first start of the season on the left of midfield against the Toon.
Despite their apparent inability to keep up with the top sides this season, there is plenty of quality in this Aston Villa side, not least in the shape of veteran Republic of Ireland keeper Given, who is now in his 15th consecutive campaign in the Premier League.
Ahead of Given in a four-man defence, Richard Dunne is likely to partner James Collins, flanked by Stephen Warnock at left-back and Hutton on the right.
In midfield, France international N’Zogbia has struggled to settle following his �9.5 million move from Wigan, but is likely to retain his starting place on the right wing, with Bannan in line to keep his spot on the opposite flank.
Stiliyan Petrov and Fabian Delph provide solidity in the centre, if a lack of goal threat, while up Villa have a man reborn this season.
Gabriel Agbonlahor already has three goals in five games, only two less than his entire total for last season, and he heads to Loftus Road looking to rejuvenate his flaggging England career.
Villa’s recent record against promoted sides is poor; they lost at Newcastle and West Brom last season and drew at Blackpool, and their unbeaten start is about to face its toughest test so far.
They would probably take a single point – again – and with Agbonlahor a real threat they could well manage it in a 1-1 draw.
Follow Ian Cooper on Twitter @QPRTimes