Darren Bent was frozen out for most of last season and ended up on loan at Fulham but says he is ready for the start of a new campaign.Darren Bent is confident he can hit the ground running when Aston Villa travels to Stoke City on the opening day of the Premier League season.
Saturday's match at the Britannia Stadium brings together two sides that would appear to have reasons for boasting contrasting levels of confidence heading into the new campaign.
Spirits are high at Stoke, with the eye-catching arrival of Bojan Krkic from Barcelona having enhanced the feel-good factor provided by a surge to ninth in the table last season.
Yet an air of uncertainty hangs over Midlands rival Villa, with owner Randy Lerner keen to sell the club and many fans seemingly less than impressed by successive 15th-place finishes under the management of Paul Lambert.
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Villa will recognize the importance of a strong start this time around, with the fixture computer having thrown up the daunting prospect of consecutive games against Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton from mid-September.
And with fellow strikers Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak still recovering from serious injuries, Bent is optimistic he can step up and deliver.
The 30-year-old, back in Lambert's plans after spending last season on loan at Fulham, told Villa's official website: "I'm ready to impress and raring to go. I feel really positive. It's a fresh season and a fresh start for everybody. I've been really happy with preseason. I've got game time under my belt, scored some goals and I feel confident about what's ahead for me and the team."
The 2013-14 campaign saw Stoke achieve its highest top-flight finish since 1975, while supporters also welcomed a gradual evolution in style as Mark Hughes sought to build on the work of predecessor Tony Pulis.
Improving on last season's achievements may be a tough ask, but the club will enter the new season in a positive mood, having complemented the capture of Bojan with four other additions.
Former Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers forward Mame Biram Diouf will be looked upon to provide a regular source of goals following two productive seasons in the Bundesliga with Hannover.
Hughes has also added experience to his squad in the form of Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell, while Dionatan Teixeira — a central defender capped by Slovakia at Under-21 level — joined from Banska Bystrica on the same day Diouf's signing was announced.
While Lambert has been able to bring in Philippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Aly Cissokho, it can be argued that Villa's most significant offseason business to date involves a man who hung up his boots in 2006.
Roy Keane — one of the Premier League's most decorated players following more than a decade of success at Manchester United — was appointed as Lambert's assistant at the beginning of July and will hope to bring new energy to the Midlands club.
Stoke — which is likely to be at full strength this weekend — won both meetings with Villa last season, following up a 2-1 victory on home soil with arguably its best performance of the season when winning 4-1 at Villa Park in March.