Arsenal versus Aston Villa: the most striking thing about this fixture is how both teams have dramatically fallen in stature over the last few years. This fixture in December 2009 saw a top-four clash between two teams with so much more quality than there is in either side now. Villa were joint-third in the table, level on points with Arsenal heading into the game and defended stubbornly for the first hour.
Then came the introduction of an unfit Cesc Fàbregas and the best cameo I’ve ever witnessed against Villa. The Spaniard found the corner of Brad Friedel’s goal with a 25-yard free-kick and slotted home a second before an Abou Diaby strike settled the game. Compare the teams this season to that game of 2009 where Arsenal had players of the class of Fàbregas and Villa had already beaten Liverpool, Manchester United and Liverpool and you will see a stark contrast.
With Arsenal losing three on the bounce at the Emirates Stadium it’s hard to tell if it’s a brilliant time to play them, or if Aston Villa will face the backlash that will inevitably occur soon - it all depends on how the Midlands side approach the game.
It’s not very often that a team like Arsenal lose three home games in a row so to add another to that is about as likely as Arsène Wenger getting sacked, but if Paul Lambert sets Villa up in the right manner he could be onto an unexpected point or three. The Arsenal fans are unhappy and regularly express their frustration during games, and there are two ways for Villa to get the fans to turn on Arsenal and really make it a dank atmosphere to play in.
The first possible approach is to start the game frantically and put extensive effort into pressurising the Gunners’ players in the hope of forcing mistakes and getting an early goal; the second approach is to play safe for the first 20 minutes and remain stable defensively up until the hour mark at which point, depending on how the game has panned out, either make sure of the point or go for all three. It’s not the attractive football that the fans desire, but picking up bonus points against a top-four side is far more important than that now I’m afraid.
The Arsenal fixture seems to be one of the rare “top” games that Aston Villa have actually picked up points in on a regular basis in recent history, with three draws and two wins for Villa in the last ten meetings between the two sides – both of the wins coming at The Emirates. If Ignacio Monreal returns to the Arsenal defence then he will be a welcome addition to their backline, but you can still see an in-form Christian Benteke causing all sorts of problems with his physicality and ability to embarrass even the most experienced of defenders.
The twenty-two year-old Belgian has found the net in his last five games, grabbing six goals and the sort of acclaim which sees clubs such as Arsenal and their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur linked with a big money summer move for him. Charles N’Zogbia has also been in impressive form recently with two assists and a goal in his last two outings and Villa will need to get both of these players into the game and Arsenal’s defence will need to keep them quiet if they are to come away from this game with victory.
Aston Villa moved out of the relegation zone in the last round of Premier League fixtures with a scrappy win over West Ham United. Although they conceded a late own-goal to put themselves under enormous pressure for the last five minutes, it will be a massive confidence boost that they managed to hold on and take home the full bounty despite being in a similar position several times before and failing.