“Can we finish it now?” That was the question Paul Lambert jokingly asked reporters in the post-match press conference when it was pointed out that Aston Villa briefly found themselves top of the Premier League.
A goalless draw at home to Newcastle in the early kick-off on Saturday won’t be a result to get the Villa fans among the 30,267 crowd too excited. Holte End tongues were firmly in cheek when chanting ‘we’re gonna win the league’ late in the second half.
But fresh from a 1-0 win at Stoke on the opening weekend, four points from two games is rather more than many supporters might have hoped for given the doom and gloom that has surrounded the club for much of the summer.
A limited budget and an owner seeking to sell has contributed to a feeling of unease around Villa Park with what signings that have arrived failing to ignite much excitement ahead of the campaign. Carlos Sanchez, a Colombian holding midfield, carried the tag of showpiece signing on Saturday.
Philippe Senderos, Kieran Richardson and Joe Cole are familiar and underwhelming faces, all likely to be past their prime. In comparison to the imaginative acquisitions on show in the Newcastle line-up, the home fans might be entitled to feeling a little uninspired.
But nobody can deny they’ve looked a solid unit so far. Back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since November can only be regarded as an encouraging start. A triumph for the manager’s organisational skills and the togetherness among the group.
“Overall as a group, we’re much stronger than we were last season,” wrote Lambert in his pre-match programme notes. “The feeling is different too, with a stronger mentality and a real sense of anticipation and eagerness to go and play and try to win games, which is what it’s all about.”
The full-backs summed it up. Alan Hutton and Aly Cissokho might have ostensibly been regarded as a weakness. But Cissokho earned the sponsors’ man of the match award with Newcastle boss Alan Pardew eventually forced to switch Moussa Sissoko in order to stop him advancing.
That put the talented Remy Cabella up against Hutton. With Villa under some pressure after the break, it was the sort of perceived mismatch that would have had plenty predicting disaster. And yet, as against Stoke’s Bojan last week, Hutton dealt well with the challenge.
The Scotland international won possession more often than any other outfield player. Nobody made more tackles. It was a commanding effort defensively, packed with purposeful running going forwards as Hutton created more chances than any other Villa player. Looking mentally tough and unerring in his focus, it was a performance as impressive as it has been surprising.
Relegated to the so-called bomb squad, Hutton spent much of last season on loan at Bolton after periods at Nottingham Forest and Mallorca in the previous campaign. Now in the final year of his deal, this was his first appearance at Villa Park since being replaced by James Collins in Alex McLeish’s last home game in charge in May 2012.
Lambert enjoyed this effort rather more McLeish did that one. “Hutton was excellent all game, which is great for ourselves and for Alan,” he said afterwards. “And it’s great for the national team who’ve a massive game coming up against Scotland. He’s in excellent form at the minute.”
It wasn’t enough to get Villa all the points. Lambert’s men didn’t manage a single shot on target against Newcastle, hinting at the enduring limitations of this Villa team. With Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak to come back in that’s an issue that could yet be solved.
With new-found resilience at the other end of the pitch, the early indications are that Villa should have enough to stay out of trouble this season – particularly vital as the club awaits a buyer. Improbably, Alan Hutton looks set to be a part of that in a top-half Villa team. Can we finish it now?