Need to know: Aston Villa
LONDON (AP) - Five things to know about Aston Villa going into the 2013-14 English Premier League season:
After scoring 23 goals in his debut season in England and leading Aston Villa to Premier League survival, Christian Benteke returned to offseason training at Villa and handed in a written transfer request. With the World Cup on the horizon, the Belgium forward seemed to be set on moving clubs amid reported interest from Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool. But after a discussion with manager Paul Lambert, Benteke signed a contract extension through to 2017. He has been in tremendous form throughout the offseason, scoring a hat-trick against third-tier Crewe and finding the net twice for Belgium against the United States.
LAMBERT'S YOUTH POLICY
Manager Paul Lambert will look to continue developing his young Villa side this season. At times during the 2012-13 campaign, its potential was impressive; a 3-1 victory at Liverpool and a 6-1 home thrashing of Sunderland were particularly memorable. But a 4-1 loss away to Southampton in September and an 8-0 thumping at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea showed that Lambert's side still had much to learn and relegation was a real possibility. A strong end to the season, losing only twice in the last seven games - to Chelsea and Manchester United - secured the team's topflight status and encouraged Lambert and Villa fans ahead of this campaign.
Lambert has brought more young players with potential to Villa Park rather than adding older, experienced ones to the ranks. The 21-year-old Denmark defender Jores Okore joined Villa after a season which saw him play in the Champions League with FC Nordsjaelland. Antonio Luna, a 22-year-old left-sided defender from Sevilla, has signed for the club - providing competition for Joe Bennett to make the starting team. Twenty-year-old Leandro Bacuna joined from Dutch team Groningen and adds another midfield option alongside Bulgarian winger Aleksandar Tonev, 23, who arrived from CSKA Sofia. Villa also signed striker Nicklas Helenius from Swedish side Aalborg. The 22-year-old signed a three-year-deal.
LEUKEMIA FORCES PETROV RETIREMENT
Captain Stiliyan Petrov announced his retirement in May after missing the 2012-13 season as he fought leukemia. Petrov has remained at the club, however, becoming an assistant to development coach Gordon Cowans, and he will pass on his experience to players passing through the club's academy. Petrov received huge support from Villa fans throughout his treatment, with supporters applauding throughout the 19th minute of every home match last season - a reference to his shirt number.
PLAYERS STAYING, PLAYERS OUT
Lambert moved quickly to reward last season's impressive players with new contracts. United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan and midfielder Ashley Westwood both signed new four-year deals. Defenders Matt Lowton and Ciaran Clark signed new four and three-year contracts respectively. In terms of notable exits, attacking midfielder Brett Holman joined Al Nasr in Dubai after one season with Villa and Richard Dunne joined second-tier Queens Park Rangers on a free transfer.
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