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Aston Villa-Stoke City Preview

AP - Sports

While Aston Villa might have welcomed the conclusion of the 2013/2014 Premier League campaign to assess a discouraging slide, Stoke City likely would have been content riding their late-term success into the summer months.

The sides open the new campaign Saturday at the Britannia Stadium, where the Potters supporters hope the club can further build on a season that saw them finish in the top half of the top-flight table for the first time.

That position seemed entirely unlikely in the winter months as first-year manager Mark Hughes' side battled for their Premier League lives, but from February on, Stoke went 8-4-3.

Along the way, the Potters completed a double against Villa by a 6-2 aggregate, including a resounding 4-1 triumph at Villa Park on March 23 as the climb hit its top speed.

While Stoke won't suffer from substantial departures, plenty of selection questions remain. That's not true at goalkeeper, where clear No. 1 Asmir Begovic remains, or for most of the back line. Last season's consistent trio of defenders - captain Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron and Erik Pieters - return, and they could be joined on the right by Phil Bardsley, who joins the club after starting 26 league matches with Sunderland a season ago.

In front of them, midfielder Steven Nzonzi remains, despite repeated transfer requests, and former Villa man Stephen Ireland will be pushing for inclusion against his old side, as will Steve Sidwell, who joins his fifth Premier League club.

Marko Arnautovic will again be manning the left, and there are some intriguing attacking arrivals for him to target up top.

Hughes brought on former Barcelona forward Bojan Krkic, whose once sky-high promise was overshadowed by Lionel Messi's rise at Camp Nou before moving on and eventually spending 2013/2014 at Ajax.

They also welcome striker Mame Diouf, who scored in Saturday's 1-1 pre-season draw with Freiburg after making the move from Hannover 96. Diouf scored eight Bundesliga goals a season ago, and his inclusion in the final tune-up could hint at a selection in the opener.

"Mame is a very good player, and we are delighted that he has been able to get himself off the mark," Hughes told the club's official website. "He performed really well (on Saturday), showed a lot of energy and displayed some real intelligence to his play."

The club also returns Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam, who led Stoke with seven league goals each a season ago, as well as Peter Odemwingie, who tallied six after making the move from Cardiff City in the January transfer window.

Crouch scored in both matches against Villa while Odemwingie and Adam had one.

Contrary to Stoke, Villa plummeted in the final months, securing just four points out of their final nine matches, and finished five points clear of relegation. The Villans' 38 points tied their Premier League-era low from 2011/2012.

Their season will start with strikers Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak sidelined. Benteke missed the World Cup with a ruptured Achilles while Kozak has been out since January with a broken leg, leaving manager Paul Lambert with Andreas Weimann, Darren Bent, Charles N'Zogbia and Gabby Agbonlahor to deploy in the attack.

"There's a lot of firepower there," Lambert told the club's official website. "The competition is certainly hotting up in that area."

Bent rejoins Lambert's side from last season's loan to now-relegated Fulham and brings with him Kieran Richardson. The 30-year-old Bent had a goal and an assist against Stoke a season ago and returns with the same mentality he left with.

"I am hungry for goals," Bent said. "That goes without saying. I've been the same all my career - ever since I was a kid. I live for goals."

Carlos Sanchez could be the freshest of the new faces for Villa in time should the Colombia midfielder's transfer from Elche be completed.

For now, they'll hope for Richardson as well as Joe Cole's arrival from West Ham United and Phillipe Senderos' from Valencia to aid in a turnaround after two disappointing season under Lambert.

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