Few people expected Aston Villa to have any points after the opening three games, but Paul Lambert's young side impressed against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool and, with easier fixtures coming up, the season starts here, says Andy Brassell, in his weekly look at the Premier League
This weekend may have been only the second weekend back from holidays, but we've already had the chance to tick a few bits of expected rhetoric off our Premier League bingo card. José Mourinho provoking the opposition? Check. Paul Lambert saying he was "proud of the team" in defeat? Check that too.
We've been here before with the Aston Villa manager. There were times last season where Lambert seemed like a school headteacher trying to keep a summer fete going in the face of a torrential thunderstorm, but there has been substance to give weight to his optimism in the opening stanza of this campaign.
Three points from an opening trio of fixtures composed of trips to Arsenal and Chelsea, followed by a home match with Liverpool, is not bad given Villa's rough ride last season, but it's more the manner in which they have faced the challenge that has suggested a decent season ahead.
If it was the opening day win at Arsenal that raised eyebrows, it was the middle game of the three, the unfortunate loss at Chelsea, which perhaps provided a real argument for Villa becoming a more doughty collective. Not only did they lack the rub of the green in a tight contest with an opponent in better shape than the Gunners, but Lambert clashed with Mourinho on the touchline - and was even patronised by The Special One in the post-match interviews. Could there be any greater acknowledgement?
Yet the feeling is that the real test is yet to come. Following the international fixtures, three of Villa's next four Premier League fixtures are against what might be termed beatable opposition, at home to Newcastle first up with trips to Norwich and Hull to follow. Sandwiched in between, they welcome Manchester City to Villa Park - and if Manuel Pellegrini's side defend set-pieces in Birmingham like they did in Cardiff, who knows what might happen?
Nevertheless, it is results against sides expected to be in the middle to bottom section of the table that will define Villa's season. Lambert has always given his comparatively young side the licence to play with freedom, which coaxed pleasing performances from them at Anfield and the Emirates. Their openness also saw them thrashed by Chelsea, Tottenham and Wigan in one hellish December week that threatened to capsize their season entirely.
They are not without their vulnerabilities, still. The experienced Ron Vlaar is a fine leader in many ways but looked as lost as anyone else at some important moments last season, and Fabian Delph's excellent form will only become something to bank on if he can cut down on the number of needless yellow cards he receives. New signing Antonio Luna has shown both sides of his game - the adventurous attacker who scored the clincher at Arsenal, and the unpredictable defender who was so utterly bamboozled by Daniel Sturridge for Liverpool's winner on Saturday.
The front three, which Lambert rather stumbled upon last seaso, retains the key to Villa's hopes. Andreas Weimann, Gabriel Agbonlahor and the inevitable Christian Benteke have enough power, speed and intelligent movement between them to make life difficult for any side - and, almost as importantly, they can lift the Villa Park crowd to its noisy best.
That's just what they did last season. In fact, you could argue that one such performance in front of a tumultuous Holte End - in the second half against Newcastle in January, which was ultimately in vain - sewed the seeds of collective belief. Lambert told the media how proud he was that night too. This season, he will hope to have the points to go with the moral victories, starting with the Geordies' return.
Villa to finish top 10? They are 2.3211/8 to do so.