Gerard Houllier stated last week that it was the 'tremendous challenge' of returning Aston Villa to former glories that ultimately attracted him back to English football at the helm of the Midlands club. After watching from the stands as his new side succumbed to a late Stoke City fightback at the Britannia Stadium on Monday evening, the 63 year old Frenchman will be all the more certain of the testing times which lay ahead.
Monday night's clash epitomised everything that arguably makes the Premier League the most exciting in the world - a fiercely competitive encounter, played at a frenetic pace, with clear chances for both sides, and drama at the death. Stewart Downing's excellent headed opener stunned the Potters faithful, who had no doubt been encouraged by the hosts' lively start. But Villa failed to make the most of the spell of dominance which the lead afforded them prior to half time, despite both Ashley Young and Downing coming close to doubling their advantage.
In the second half, Stoke's relentless aerial bombardment and seemingly boundless energy drove the tiring visitors back. The charge was led by the strength of Kenwyne Jones & guile of substitute Ricardo Fuller, and with the typically industrious Matthew Etherington supplying the ammunition from the left, it was no surprise when Jones finally headed in the equaliser with 10 minutes remaining. And just when the match appeared to be petering out into a draw, Robert Huth popped up in the midst of a penalty area scramble to prod home an injury time winner, and ensure that Gerard Houllier's first viewing of his new team was not a pleasant experience.
The former Liverpool man may have been restricted from actually taking charge of Villa in time for Monday night's game as a result of complications in the negotiations to free him of his commitments to the French FA, but what will have been as clear to him as to any other spectator in the Britannia stadium are the problems that he will have to rectify on the pitch. Aside from a 10 minute spell of pressure which followed Downing's header, the Villains rarely posed a serious threat to Thomas Sorensen's goal. Gabi Agbonlahor, blazing a lone trail up front, may boast an impressive assist for the opener, but in general got very little change out of Stoke's physically imposing backline. And it is more than a little worrying that someone with the abysmal goalscoring record of Emile Heskey was considered the best choice for the role of 'impact substitute' as Villa searched for a change in fortune late in the game. If such attacking problems were evident against Stoke - formidable, but hardly illustrious, Premier League opposition - then it is hard to view Villa's long-term ambitions with optimism.
The nature of the defeat also raises familiar nagging questions in the minds of Villa fans as to the resilience and fitness of their side. Last year, Martin O'Neill's men never appeared to have truly mastered the art of survival when things weren't going their way - a flaw which led to embarassing defeats against Portsmouth and Chelsea, as well as numerous other dropped points throughout the course of the season. Moreover, in the wake of their clash at Stamford Bridge, Blues captain John Terry stated that he and his teammates had been encouraged to up the tempo in the latter stages of the game, spurred on by their knowledge of the inferior physical conditioning of the Aston Villa players. Defeat at the Britannia stadium, combined with a trouncing at the hands of Newcastle Utd, suggest that things have been following a similar course under caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald. It is a course which Houllier must find a way to navigate away from if he is to succeed at Villa Park.
Non-footballing circumstances could also pose problems for the experienced Frenchman. There have been numerous newspaper rumours that Steven Warnock and Brad Friedel - never highly valued at Liverpool under Houllier's reign - were less than keen to work under him again. If there is any substance to the stories, then these sentiments have the potential to be a significant negative influence on the dressing room. Should any problems occur, it is difficult to see funds which were denied Martin O'Neill being afforded his successor to make his mark on the team. This may well be music to the ears of some Villa fans, who remember Houllier as the man who spent over £30m on less than inspired targets such as Salif Diao, El Hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou and Djibril Cisse, but it is worth remembering that any coach is at his best when managing a side he feels shares his footballing philosophy. If Houllier is denied finance to achieve this, then a 'new dawn' may well be slow in arriving.
There are, however, grounds for optimism, both on the part of Houllier himself and Villa fans. The experienced Frenchman boasts considerable success in cup competitions, particularly in his 2000/2001 season at Liverpool, and the FA and Carling Cups remain the Villains' best hope for some long-awaited silverware. Houllier's role in developing the famous Clairfontaine youth academy in France also bodes well when it comes to the talent currently emerging from Villa's youth ranks. Players like Nathan Delfouneso, Marc Albrighton and Ciaran Clark have already been tipped for big things, and it is reasonable to assume from his past achievements that the Frenchman possesses the necessary knowledge to help them fulfil their considerable potential. Finally, whilst Houllier's Liverpool were never considered the entertainers of the Premier League, they were a tactically well-organised and well-drilled side. If he can help Villa shed the defensive naivety which has occasionally been exposed, they may well stem the tide of goals conceded late on in matches.
With a tough act to follow and without any considerable war-chest, Gerard Houllier has set himself the unenviable task of rebuilding Aston Villa as a major force in English football. If the former Liverpool man didn't already know, Monday night's defeat to Stoke has made it abundantly clear that there is much work to be done if he is to succeed in his aims.