On the final day of the 2019/20 season, Aston Villa travelled to West Ham United needing a result to maintain their top flight status.
They would eventually manage precisely that, thanks to 1-1 draw against the Hammers. However, while Jack Grealish’s goal six minutes from time officially cued in the celebrations, it was their victory – five days earlier over Arsenal at home – that had truly set the scene for that momentous escape.
That 1-0 triumph, secured by the right boot of Egypt international Mahmoud Trezeguet, served as something of a turning point, as Villa have begun 2020/21 in absolutely blistering form.
Key to that, somewhat ironically, has been embracing a ruthless outlook on squad composition.
Dean Smith’s side have made a number of upgrades to the first-team squad, but perhaps the most impactful have come on the team’s right flank: Ahmed Elmohamady has been replaced by Matty Cash at right-back, and Trezeguet, in spite of his survival heroics, has been usurped by Bertrand Traore.
The 25-year-old, who joined in the summer from Ligue 1 semi-finalists Lyon, has enjoyed a quite colourful career so far.
Plucked from the Auxerre youth system by Chelsea in 2013, Traore was fed into the London club’s famous loan mill, enjoying productive spells at Vitesse and Ajax, before being traded to Les Gones in 2017.
Despite a tough first stint in England, a transfer to Villa afforded the Burkina Faso international a chance to fulfil his long-held desire to prove his worth in the Premier League, and so far he has grabbed it with both hands.
It took him a bit to really get going, but three in his last five matches have signalled his intent, and offer a taster for what is to come.
Perhaps the pick of the bunch came against struggling West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns – an early, caressed finish into the bottom corner that left Baggies goalkeeper Sam Johnstone completely flat-footed and powerless to resist. It was a microcosm of all Traore offers at his very best: guile, culture and unpredictability.
Trezeguet of course had the latter in spades, but often in the more unflattering sense of the word.
Toward the end of his time in the starting lineup, he became increasingly prone to improbable misses. The most egregious of the lot came in the 2-1 defeat to West Ham, when he materialized unmarked inside the six-yard box, but somehow failed to turn in an Ollie Watkins centre.
It is likely, given the not insignificant transfer outlay made by the club, that Smith would have put Traore in the side eventually. Nevertheless, Trezeguet’s misfortune in front of goal made the decision that little bit easier, and Traore has responded emphatically, picking up the slack as striker Watkins labours to come out of an eight-game goal drought.
Wednesday's meeting with Manchester City, however, will present a particularly stern challenge, but one which is pregnant with opportunity for the ex-Chelsea wonderkid.
He will have regretted not getting on the scoresheet against his former employers at Stamford Bridge recently, even if only to show them they were wrong to let him go without affording him a proper run in the team. His equalizer against Manchester United four days later was also overshadowed by Bruno Fernandes’ penalty, which denied Villa a share of the points.
The clash against City, therefore, offers Traore a chance at a true statement performance in claret.
Three goals and one assist in his last four games. 🎯— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) January 2, 2021
Bertrand Traoré is in fine form. 👌 pic.twitter.com/ozpeLWHTaF
Their most recent outing – a lone-goal defeat to Southampton – saw captain Jordan Henderson deputizing at centre-back, a far from optimal solution which could have been punished more severely had the Saints shown greater composure during transitions.
While Villa have lost their last two fixtures, they will be well rested having not played their first team in a fixture since the defeat by Manchester United on New Year's Day.
It's a near-three-week rest - considering they played their U-23 team against Liverpool amidst a Covid crisis - that should ensure Villa are well-rested during the run-in, even if they face a hefty fixture backlog.
First though, they face City, and another opportunity for star signing Traore to remind Chelsea what they're missing.