Aston Villa now very much looking up as they return to the scene of their Great Escape

When Villa last visited West Ham their short-term future sat on a knife edge.

For most of 90 minutes in late July, Dean Smith’s team were potentially just one second from disaster, a misplaced pass or header away from relegation to the Championship.

Now four months on and having emerged from that day with their Premier League status still intact, they return to the London Stadium with a very different outlook, targeting a sixth win in nine matches to start the new campaign.

“We are definitely better,” said Smith. “I have said before; you come into the first season in the Premier League and I felt we had five top players at the time and an opportunity for others to grow.

“Now this second season I feel we have eight or nine top players and others who can grow.

“It takes time. You have to be in the Premier League for three or four years before you can grow that squad to being experienced.”

Villa had taken seven points from three matches to ensure they headed to the Hammers with destiny in their own hands, with survival eventually secured courtesy of a nervy 1-1 draw.

Yet while the day itself might already be looked back on as a turning point in the club’s history, Smith puts greater significance on the work carried out during last season’s three-month lockdown.

“For me that was the turnaround. I think when we started Project Restart, everyone at Bodymoor Heath believed we would stay up.

“The climax of it all was obviously in that last game and there was an awful lot on our shoulders because of the good work and the hard work everyone had put in.

“That could all have been put back 12 months had we been relegated but we knew if we went and performed like we had, things would be OK.

“I think I said at the time (staying up) was probably a bigger achievement than promotion.

“We went up the season before and had to change pretty much an entire team. It was difficult and an unprecedented time with the pandemic.”

It is not only Villa who look a very proposition this season. The Hammers, long-time rivals in last term’s battle against the drop, also fall into the category of clubs who will have entered this season aiming for stability but might now be hopeful of more. Emphatic wins over both Wolves and Leicester have shown the potential of David Moyes’ team, who sit just one spot behind Villa in the table.

“It doesn’t surprise me how well they are doing,” said Smith, who sits with Moyes on the League Managers Association’s executive board.

“The experience of mixing with the likes of David has helped me as a manager. You look at what he has done in the game, Preston and Everton, Manchester United.

“He’s gone abroad as well and it’s testament to him earning time (at clubs) with the qualities he has.”

The big question heading into the match from Villa’s perspective is who Smith chooses to replace Ross Barkley in the starting XI.

Though the head coach reeled off a list of possible names during Saturday’s pre-match press briefing, Conor Hourihane or Bertrand Traore remain the most likely candidates.

Traore enjoyed his longest outing yet for Villa after Barkley suffered a hamstring injury early in last week’s 2-1 defeat to Brighton, a match where Smith felt his team paid the price for not working hard enough off the ball.

The 25-year-old is still waiting to properly make his mark since joining in a £19million move from Lyon in the recent transfer window, though his boss believes there are mitigating factors.

“He has probably had less rest than the other players too, as he was with Lyon in the late rounds of the Champions League,” said Smith.

“He has been playing for quite a long time, come into a new team and had to learn a new system as well.

“But he is certainly getting towards where we want him to be. I thought he looked really bright when he came on against Brighton, the keeper has made a really good save from him and he brightened up our play on the ball.

“We just need to work with him off the ball but I could say that about a lot of our players last week.”

Elsewhere, Villa remain a little short of defensive cover, with Bjorn Engels, Kortney Hause and Frederic Guilbert all likely to be unavailable, though the latter pair have returned to training. Striker Keinan Davis faces a late fitness test.

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