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Can Aston Villa and Steve Bruce afford to blow their big opportunity?

After a difficult start to life in the Championship, Aston Villa are now in a favourable position to secure a return to the Premier League under Steve Bruce, writes columnist Jake Jackman.

Jake Jackman

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Villa
Photo: Reuters

Aston Villa have climbed up the Championship table and, after a run of six consecutive victories, should now be considered serious promotion contenders.

The Midlands club have struggled since being relegated from the Premier League and it has taken them some time to adjust to the second tier, but they are now emerging as one of the best teams in the division.

The club’s critics will point to the amount of money that has been spent since arriving in the second tier, but, in truth, the squad needed a complete overhaul and the Villains are now benefitting from that.

They are currently third in the division, but they trail Derby County by only one point and will be confident that they can move ahead of Gary Rowett’s side.

Villa are building momentum at the right time and no team will relish the prospect of playing against Steve Bruce’s men.

The manager is a major reason why the club have to be considered as favourites to clinch the second automatic promotion place, as he has a proven track record of getting teams over the line.

He has won promotion to the Premier League on four occasions and that will stand him in good stead to achieve a similar feat at Villa Park.

A quick look at the squad that faced Burton Albion shows the quality and experience that Bruce currently has at his disposal.

John Terry is a winner and after a slow start to life as a Championship player, he has found his stride. His leadership will be crucial over the coming months.

Ahmed El Mohamady, James Chester, Alan Hutton, Robert Snodgrass, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak have all achieved success in the Premier League, which makes them great players to have when challenging for promotion.

Meanwhile, Jack Grealish, Josh Onomah and Keinan Davis have the ability to inject flair and energy into any performance.

It has been a period of recovery for Aston Villa, but they are now coming out fighting and the supporters have a team they can believe in again.

At the tail end of the Championship standings, there are examples of what can happen if the team isn’t run correctly after relegation.

Sunderland are second bottom and have only won five times in 30 league matches. Meanwhile, Hull City are just one place above them in the table.

Both clubs could face back-to-back relegations and, considering the supposed financial advantage they should hold over the rest of the league, their struggles are indicative of poor leadership from the top.

Although Tony Xia has caused problems for Aston Villa since taking over as the owner of the football club, namely through his Twitter feed, he has stabilised the club and provided the finances needed to build a team that can compete in the Championship.

The Chinese businessman made headlines when he bought the club,  speaking of his desire to win the Champions League within ten seasons, as evidenced by the following quotes from the Telegraph:

“We don’t have a very detailed plan but we have a vision that we will challenge to get back into the Premier League and we will be challenging when we get back.

”The aim, not just the hope, is to get back in the European field within five years and I wish we can succeed to get another trophy like we have here in eight or 10 years. That is not an exact number, but we want to win the European Cup.

“It is really important to get promoted in the first season as everybody hopes but all we can do is do our best.”

There is nothing wrong with ambition and, as Leicester City showed when they won the Premier League in 2016, the impossible remains possible in football.

However, coming in as a new owner of a club that had just been embarrassed in the Premier League, it wasn’t the right time to speak about achieving success in Europe.

First and foremost, he had to sort out the mess that he had inherited.

He initially appointed Roberto di Matteo and that turned out to be a poor move.

The Italian had previously won promotion with West Brom and the Champions League with Chelsea, but he wasn’t the appointment that the club needed.

Villa required a manager who had the experience of winning promotion and building a squad capable of achieving it, from scratch.

Di Matteo didn’t stay in the position long. Villa were struggling in 19th position after just 11 league matches, with only one win to their name.

Xia made the decision to relieve the Italian of his duties and started a managerial search from scratch.

The appointment that followed showed how much the Chinese businessman had learned from his short time in football, as Steve Bruce came in.

The Geordie was exactly what the club needed and the patience shown by the board underlines the faith they have in him.

The first season after relegation was a tough one. Villa were humbled and finished a lowly 13th. However, Xia didn’t panic and he deserves credit for that.

Compared to the actions of some owners in recent years, the Chinese businessman doesn’t come across as too volatile, despite what his social media profile would have you believe.

Steve Bruce’s recruitment since has been very shrewd. He has brought in players that are proven in the Championship, alongside those with a sprinkling of Premier League class.

Robert Snodgrass would fit into both categories, while the likes of Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane know what is required to succeed in the lower leagues.

During January, Villa were keen to add to their ranks to maintain their positive momentum and their signing of Lewis Grabban looks to be a masterstroke.

The striker scored 12 times during the first half of the season with Sunderland, in a team that was struggling badly. His reputation soared and he will provide another source of goals for the promotion-chasing side.

The next few months will be defining for Aston Villa. Their need for promotion is greater than other clubs competing at the top of the Championship due to their wage bill and stature.

A club the size of the Midlands outfit can’t afford to be outside of the Premier League for too long, especially if they want to continue growing.

The finances on offer in the top-flight are huge and the longer the club are missing out on that, the greater the gap will become.

They are in a strong position with a proven manager and talented playing staff. It is now up to them to take that final step and return to the level where they belong.

Jake is a journalist based in the South East. He is a Newcastle United fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa’s play-off final is vital regarding the future of Jack Grealish

The 22-year-old has matured significantly under Steve Bruce this season.

Josh Kerr

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Photo: Getty Images

Aston Villa’s day of destiny awaits, and the future of Jack Grealish could also hang on this crucial Wembley fixture.

The 22-year-old has been in wonderful form for The Villans this season, and he showcased his talent in the play-off semi-final over two legs.

Villa edged past Middlesbrough 1-0, with Grealish playing a starring role over and club’s supporters will be desperate to keep their star man.

However, the future of the Solihull born youngster could hinge on whether Steve Bruce’s side gain promotion to the Premier League with a number of clubs set to swoop if Villa don’t reach the top-flight.

According to the Birmingham Mail, Grealish was recently offered a big money move to Leicester but opted to instead stay at Villa Park.

However, if Aston Villa were to fall at the final hurdle at Wembley then it may be difficult for Grealish to focus on another year in the Championship especially if the Premier League comes knocking once again.

The attacking midfielder has blossomed under Bruce this season and has been central to the club’s promotion hopes.

He has really matured over the year and his performances on the pitch have continued to impress those who once doubted whether he would fulfill his potential.

According to reports from the Mirror, Villa will need to cut costs if they fail in the play-offs and Grealish would be one of the club’s more saleable assets.

Grealish would be a huge loss to Villa, but the Midlands side will be full of confidence going into one of football’s richest fixtures.

They will know full well that a win could be the factor that ensures the club are able to withstand elusive offers for some of their top players.

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Aston Villa’s James Chester comes back to haunt former manager Tony Pulis

The Welsh defender came back to bit his old boss in the play-off semi clash.

Max Cohen

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James Chester
Photo: Getty Images

Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough side were expertly stifled by Aston Villa in their play-off semifinal, as the Villans held Boro to 180 minutes of scoreless football.

Villa centre-half James Chester was a constant rock at the back, revealing to Pulis that his former boss was wrong to sell him when the two were together at West Bromwich Albion.

Chester signed for the Baggies from Hull City in the summer of 2015, after five impressive seasons for the Tigers. The fee was reported to be in the region of £8 million and many expected the Welsh international to excel in the back four under Pulis.

Yet, frustratingly for the centre-back, Chester made only 13 league appearances for the Baggies in the 2015/16 campaign. The Welshman started just nine Premier League matches all season, as Pulis clearly did not consider him as first-choice at the Hawthorns.

After just one year at West Brom, Chester was sold to Championship side Aston Villa in 2016.

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

In the following two seasons at Villa Park, the centre-back has enjoyed tremendous success, making over 75 appearances and establishing himself as an indispensable presence at the back.

This season, Chester has struck up a formidable partnership with former Chelsea captain John Terry.

The airtight defensive combination was on full display during the two matches against Middlesbrough, as Chester and Terry stifled the high-octane Boro attack.

Featuring the likes of Britt Assambalonga, Adama Traore, Stewart Downing, Patrick Bamford, and Rudy Gestede, the Teesiders’ star-studded frontline was held scoreless due to Villa’s superb defense- led by James Chester.

As Tony Pulis watched his side run out of ideas and fall to a 1-0 aggregate defeat, he will surely be ruing his 2016 mistake.

Allowing James Chester to be sold to Aston Villa truly came back to haunt the Boro boss, as the Welsh international delivered Pulis a dramatic reminder of his abilities and cost the Teesiders a spot at Wembley.

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Aston Villa should at least take a look at Carles Gil this summer

The Spaniard spent the season out on loan from Aston Villa at Deportivo La Coruna.

Mathew Coull

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It looks as though Carles Gil will be leaving Aston Villa this summer. The Birmingham Mail reported this week that the Spaniard has no future at Villa Park, with the club looking to offload him in the summer.

An apparent obligation on the part of his current loan club Deportivo La Coruna to bring him in permanently has now been denied in the Spanish press. Marca now claims the permanent deal is void, after Depor’s relegation from La Liga.

It comes after a difficult season for Gil, in which he suffered a hernia problem and was eventually frozen out by new manager Clarence Seedorf.

But ask any Aston Villa fan and they will tell you that Gil is immensely talented. In fact, many would like to see him get another chance in England.

So should he?

Aston Villa paid Valencia a fee of around £3.2 million for the player, according to BBC Sport. It came after two excellent seasons out on loan at fellow Spanish club Elche.

Therefore, retrieving such a fee for the player would surely not be a difficult task for the club. But he clearly still has something to offer, especially if Villa remain in the Championship.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Gil was one of only a few players to come away from Aston Villa’s relegation campaign with any semblance of dignity and in his first half season at the club looked a real talent.

At just 25-years-old there is also still plenty of scope for him to improve. If Villa stay down again this season then major investment in recruitment is bound to diminish. So having a player with the talent of Gil still around at the club could be like a new signing for Villa.

It certainly seems as though Tony Xia and Steve Bruce want to banish any memory of that awful Aston Villa side that was relegated to the Championship. However, Gil might be one of the very few from that squad with redeemable qualities.

At the very least, it is worth keeping him through pre-season and seeing what he can do. If Bruce does not like what he sees, he can give Gil the boot before the transfer window shuts.

But if he does? Well, Gil could easily resurrect himself a decent career at Villa Park.

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