Match Preview - The One We've Been Waiting For
Our fixtures - only one has mattered...
Stamford Bridge. Anfield. The Emirates. The Eithad. Old Trafford.
All quite exciting destinations, home to some of the Premier League's elite. Prior to last season these were the grounds and opponents you'd look out for when the fixture list was released. When would we get to rub shoulders again with the likes of Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea and so forth?
Naturally you look forward to the corresponding home fixtures too, and the chance to welcome such elite footballing entities virtually onto your doorstep and into your fine city was a prospect we simply couldn't wait for.
But if you're like me, you'll appreciate that certain away days have an added zest and spice about them. Last year's highlights for our travelling support mainly resided in North London, the victory at White Hart Lane and the 3-3 draw with Arsenal representing real high points in our season. The 1-1 at Anfield was another memorable day out.
But this year, who cares about those trips? Sure, they're great. They're not Carrow Road or anything, but nice enough grounds I suppose. But they've been largely at the back of my mind before the fixture list was even released. Who can blame me? Who can blame anyone? There's only one destination on everyone's mind, and it's been that way ever since Paul Lambert left for pastures new.
Villa Park. Villa, bloody, Park.
Make no mistake; this is the one everyone's had their eye on. The fixture computer didn't conjure up a quick Carrow Road return for City's former chief; We'll have to wait until spring for that. But the chance to put one over on Villa is something no one needs any added motivation for.
In fairness to Villa they effectively acquired Paul's services in the same manner we did from Colchester. City Chairman Alan Bowkett obviously neglected to mention this during the supporter forum recently where he verbally buried the Scot for "walking out on every club he's ever managed." A tad harsh, and we can hardly cry wolf in that respect.
And if we're brutally honest, we all knew it was coming. We'd hoped it would've been a longer stay, and we'll never know how close that was to happening. But while we knew it was coming, we thought it would at least have ended more amicably than it did.
...And certainly not for a team which finished below us.
Make no mistake, Villa's resources are outstanding. They're having a tough time now, but the foundations are still there to reawaken one of English Football's sleeping giants. It's a big project, and one not without its problems as recent results will attest to, but there's no question that Lambert has the tools within his disposal to turn their fortunes around. He's certainly not become a bad manager overnight, and any team he puts out will always be difficult to beat, whether they're wearing yellow and green or claret and blue.
But what irks the Canary faithful is that despite all of Villa's great assets, our club with Lambert still in command would still have been better placed to be more successful in the new campaign than a Villa side who just seem to have gone completely off the boil ever since Martin O'Neil walked out on them, regardless of who they could find to replace Alex McLeish in the summer.
It'll certainly be strange. It's already been strange seeing Lambert conducting post-match interviews, press conferences and other duties for Villa after he almost became part of the furniture with us. How the players will react to it is another guess.
I expect he'll get a mixed reception at best. Personally though, I bare no grudges. He gave us three unbelievable seasons and we should be forever thankful. After all, without him we'd probably be even worse off than Ipswich are at the moment. Though he may have fallen out with his former employers, I don't doubt that he will remember the backing we gave him fondly.
I've not even mentioned Chris Hughton yet in this preview, and neither have many other outlets in the build up to this televised game either. And Hoots' will be absolutely fine with that. All the hysteria, hype and hijinx will centre around the Scot as he takes on his former team. Hughton's got the easy part; he can just quietly go about his business and prepare for the game while Lambert cops for all the distractions.
The Arsenal victory will give the team plenty of confidence going into this one, and Villa's mixed fortunes of late have left them reeling a little bit as Lambert faces an unenviable task of clearing out the old deadwood and phasing in his re-building process.
We may never get a better chance of getting back to back victories all season.
Darren Bent seems to have fallen out of favour in terms of a starting place, but Christian Benteke has been a reasonably potent threat since his summer arrival from Belgian side FC Genk. He'll be the man to keep an eye on, while up front our boys will have their work cut out for them against Brad Guzan, who's form has been so good he's comfortably kept Shay Given out of the side for the time being.
But to be honest team news, tactics, line-ups, it all goes out of the window for this one. Emotions will absolutely run high, but here's hoping that at the end of it we've secured all three points, which would undoubtedly be the best way to get over what was an unfortunate break-up of what was a really good footballing marriage.