Dean Smith hailed the progress made by his Aston Villa side ahead of their Premier League trip to Chelsea on Monday.
Smith celebrated his 100th game in charge of the club he supported as a boy with an impressive 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Boxing Day that came despite Tyrone Mings’ red card before half-time.
Villa tore the Palace defence apart, with Bertrand Traore, Jack Grealish, Ollie Watkins and Anwar El Ghazi all producing impressive performances.
Having narrowly avoided relegation in their first season back in the top flight last term, Villa are challenging at the other end of the table this time.
Saturday’s win lifted them into sixth place, just above Monday’s opponents on goal difference.
Smith said: “Our ambition at the start of the season was to be competitive in every game we play. No-one was happy with finishing 17th.
“We’re progressing as a football club and we need to make sure we maintain that.
“We’ve had a big turnaround in these 100 games. Getting promoted in the first season, bringing in 13 new players, managing to retain our status. We were fortunate to only have to bring in five quality players this summer.
“We’ve had a really good start to the season so far. I think we’ve got great maturity growing within the team even though I think we’re the youngest team in the league. It certainly bodes well for the future.”
Villa’s energetic display ensured they coped admirably with going down to 10 men against Palace, and Smith also highlighted the fitness work done by his players.
He added: “I know they are fitter. It’s something we worked on during lockdown. We wanted to get the running numbers higher.
“I think you can see from a counter-attacking aspect just how fit they are. I think we’re getting to a really good level now.”
Villa will definitely be without Ross Barkley and Mings on Monday.
Barkley has been sidelined for a month with a hamstring injury but could not play against his parent club anyway while Mings serves a one-match ban and will be replaced by Ezri Konsa, who returned from illness as a substitute on Saturday following Mings’ red card.
Smith will decide whether to make more changes given the short turnaround, saying: “We’ll have a look at the players, assess it, speak to them and see if there’s any players that need rotating.
“We feel our squad’s deep enough and that was proven with the Burnley game. We’ve got Tyrone missing, which means that the centre-halves will have to play two games on the spin. With the work we’ve been doing, I’m not sure many of them will want to come out of the team.”
Chelsea have hit a rough patch of form, with three defeats from four games, including a 3-1 loss against struggling Arsenal on Saturday.
Smith is expecting a stern test against Frank Lampard’s men, though.
He said: “Chelsea have got very, very good players. We need to be at our best.
“We know what we’re coming up against. We’ve got to be ready to compete.”