Aston Villa manager Dean Smith told Ross Barkley he would get him into England’s squad for next summer’s European Championships and the on-loan Chelsea midfielder has set about proving his new boss right.
Barkley, who turns 27 in December, has not featured for Gareth Southgate’s squad for more than a year since scoring twice in the 6-0 win over Bulgaria.
His career appeared to be stagnating at Stamford Bridge but he was sold a new vision by Smith and, having made a temporary move at the end of the summer window, has responded by scoring in his first two matches for the club – his latest an added-time strike which secured a 1-0 win at Leicester on Sunday night.
That goal lifted Villa, who survived relegation by one point in July, to second in the Premier League table, helped in no small part by the likes of Barkley adding more dynamism to their midfield.
“He’s a high-calibre player. I’m thankful to Chelsea that they’ve loaned him to us,” said Smith of the Liverpool-born former Everton midfielder.
“I sold him the project here and told him I’ll get him in the Euros squad and he’s going to try and help us win football games. He’s certainly done that in his first couple.
“He couldn’t have started better. Being a Blue, getting that win and scoring against the Reds (in a 7-2 win before the international break) and then getting that in the 91st minute couldn’t have been a better start for him or us.
“It was a tough game and that bit of quality shone through at the end.”
Having scraped home on the final day of the season to secure their top-flight status, Villa have begun as a different team, one which boasts one of only two 100 per cent records in Europe’s top five leagues.
Their only two goals conceded to date both came against Liverpool and Smith believes three clean sheets in four matches points to a new mindset.
“I am really pleased with it but I have been pleased with it since lockdown (in March),” he added.
“There is a general work ethic between players that they want to keep clean sheets and it is a credit not just to the defenders and goalkeeper but the whole team.”
The trend for Leicester appears to be heading in the other direction as, having thrown away the chance of a top-four finish last season with just four wins in their final 14 league matches, they have now lost three of the last four in all competitions.
With three wins in the Premier League, however, they remain in fourth, ahead of Arsenal on goal difference, and manager Brendan Rodgers continues to look at the positives despite losing centre-back Caglar Soyuncu for three months with a groin injury sustained on international duty with Turkey.
His replacement against Villa was 19-year-old debutant Wesley Fofana, a £30million arrival from Saint-Etienne on deadline day, who impressed in a game low on chances.
“I thought he was outstanding and the supporters will have great joy watching him,” said the Northern Irishman.
“Whether he plays in a back three or a two he has huge potential. For a defender his anticipation is so good, for someone so young he reads the game so well.
“His jumping ability was so aggressive and that is something you need in the British game as a central defender.
“He will be a big player for our future and it was disappointing for him not to get the result but his individual performance offers hope for the future.”