POSSIBLE REPLACEMENTS FOR STEVE BRUCE AT ASTON VILLA

Aston Villa lie in 18th position, closer to the drop-zone than the play-offs.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Steve Bruce. His expensively-assembled squad were joint-favourites for the title before the season kicked off.

This was the season the Villans would return to the big time.

Tonight’s clash with Middlesbrough at Villa Park is vital. Lose, and the calls for Bruce’s head will reach a crescendo.

If the Villa board hasn’t done so already, we’ve drawn up a shortlist of five possible candidates who could take this squad forward.

Dean Smith

If owner Dr. Tony Xia wants a head coach who plays progressive, attacking football, he could do worse than seek out Brentford’s Dean Smith.

The 46-year-old has hugely impressed at Griffin Park despite consistently losing his best players.

While they remain winless this season, the football Smith employs gives them an excellent chance of survival and beyond.

That was on show last weekend as his side were unlucky not to come away from Villa Park with all three points.

The ex-Walsall boss is also, admittedly, a big Villa fan and that would likely sway the Claret and Blue support.

Paulo Sousa

The 47-year-old has been out of work since leaving Fiorentina in the summer.

The Portuguese tactician has a reputation for playing free-flowing football and has experience of this level having managed Swansea City.

Sousa has won honours in Hungary, Switzerland, and Israel, as well two top-eight finishes in Serie A with the Viola.

His reputation as a player and manager suit both club and squad.

Claude Puel

Having been harshly let go by Southampton in the summer, Puel remains a free agent and would be a catch for a club like Villa.

The ex-Nice and Lyon coach again plays attacking football and was hugely unlucky not to win a trophy while at St. Mary’s.

A club of Villa’s stature and squad quality would surely be tempting for the 56-year-old, even if it meant dropping into the Championship.

Bernd Schuster

Out of work since his previous stint at Malaga, the German has a hugely distinguished CV and a reputation for attacking football.

Having managed the likes of Real Madrid, Besiktas, and Shakhtar Donetsk since 2003, the 57-year-old should be able to maximise the talent at Villa’s disposal.

A downside would be the fact he has never managed in England before but that shouldn’t be an issue for a coach of his experience.

Frank de Boer

After failed stints at Inter Milan and now Crystal Palace, Frank de Boer’s reputation as a coach isn’t exactly at its zenith.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the Dutchman has been harshly judged.

The Italian club is a graveyard for good managers.

Palace gave him just four games to turn around a club who had a history of employing managers who played direct football.

However, the Eagles did play some lovely stuff under him at times, and Villa could be a team who’d benefit from the style that he encourages.

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