Aston Villa set to rival Crystal Palace in pursuit of Baptista (Aston Villa boss Dean Smith is seen in the picture)
Sheffield United's English manager Chris Wilder (L) and Aston Villa's English head coach Dean Smith (R) go to bump arms at the final whistle during the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park in Birmingham, central England on June 17, 2020. - The Premier League makes its eagerly anticipated return today after 100 days in lockdown but behind closed doors due to coronavirus restrictions. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Aston Villa head into their home game against Leeds United on Friday knowing that they will move to the top of the Premier League for the first time since 2011 if they avoid defeat.

Villa have won their opening four matches of the new campaign, and they are the only team alongside Everton who are yet to lose this term.

Having narrowly avoided relegation last season, it would be a brave move for fans to be placing a bet on this dark horse at football’s leading brands to mount a title challenge.

However, with confidence high around Villa Park, is it beyond the realms of possibility for Villa to force themselves into the reckoning for a top-six finish?

Smith Vows to Stay Grounded

Victories in Villa’s opening two matches weren’t wholly unexpected, but a 7-2 demolition over Liverpool in their third outing was a major shock.

Villa followed up with a gritty 1-0 win at Leicester City to maintain their 100% record, but manager Dean Smith has insisted that they won’t get carried away.

“To come through those with maximum points certainly exceeds expectations,” he told VillaTV.

“Sheffield United, Fulham and ourselves would have looked at those opening two games and seen an opportunity to pick up points.

“We managed to win both of them and then you go into Liverpool and Leicester, who are both top-five teams.

“Our feet are firmly on the ground because, if you’re off it at any stage in the league, you can get a bloody nose very quickly.”

The Martinez Factor

The signing of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez from Arsenal during the transfer window could turn out to be an inspired piece of business.

Villa conceded 67 goals in the Premier League last season, the second-worst record in the top flight behind Norwich City.

Smith desperately needed to address that issue this summer and getting Martinez on board has been an important part of Villa’s stellar start to the season.

The 28-year-old produced some outstanding performances for the Gunners last season following an injury to Bernd Leno, ending the season with an FA Cup winners’ medal to his name.

He has continued in the vein this time around, conceding just twice against Liverpool in his four league appearances for Villa.

The Argentine looks to be a quality addition and may prove to be the signing of the summer if he can maintain his excellent form.

Barkley Showcases his Quality

Ross Barkley in action
Ross Barkley of Villa in action during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Aston Villa at The King Power Stadium on October 18, 2020 in Leicester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

On-loan Chelsea midfielder Ross Barkley looks to be another shrewd acquisition after scoring in both his appearances for the club so far.

Barkley undoubtedly has a point to prove after an uninspiring spell at Stamford Bridge, and Smith has backed him to deliver the goods with Villa.

“He’s made a big impact,” Smith added.”The fact we’ve gone out and managed to entice that calibre of player into the squad has certainly gone down well in the dressing room and with our staff and fans as well.

“He’s a top player, who has been in and amongst the Champions League for the last two or three years of his career. He’s been a regular starter for England too.

“He’s not played the amount of minutes he’s wanted to and we’ve managed to get him to Aston Villa.

“His job now is to produce performances for Aston Villa that take the eye of Gareth Southgate and get him back into the England squad.”

Championship Duo Step up to the Mark

Martinez and Barkley are not the only new arrivals to impress during the early part of the season, with Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash also making their mark since joining the club.

Ollie Watkins tries to control the ball
Aston Villa’s English striker Ollie Watkins controls the ball during the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Villa Park in Birmingham, central England on October 4, 2020. (Photo by PETER POWELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Watkins grabbed plenty of the headlines with a hat-trick against Liverpool, and the former Brentford striker hasn’t looked out of place in the Premier League.

Cash also deserves plenty of credit for his performances and he already seems to have established himself as the club’s first choice right back.

The ex-Nottingham Forest star has started every league game so far and played an integral role in a defence that has kept three clean sheets out of four in the top flight.

Cash also offers an attacking threat down the right-hand side, something that was lacking from Villa’s play last season.

Both players have handled the step up from the Championship in style and they are fully expected to prove their worth as the season progresses.

Building on a Strong Start

Smith deserves plenty of credit for the improvements he has made to Villa’s team, although he is right to try and play down expectations.

While the upcoming schedule could be viewed as being favourable, it would be foolish to underestimate the threat posed by any of their opponents.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the unbeaten run while it lasts, but the key to where Villa finish this season will be down to how they react to adversity.

If their key players stay fit and Smith can add a little more depth during the January transfer window, a top-six finish may not be beyond Villa this season.