The Premier League likes to portray itself as the footballing ‘land of opportunity‘. For Arsenal, it is a golden opportunity in every sense of the occasion. The chance to put some daylight between themselves and fourth place; a temporary chance to snatch second place; the opportunity to claw back the deficit to the leaders to four points. If a team needed incentive to win this afternoon, Arsenal has it.
So do Aston Villa for all of those opportunities afforded to Arsenal, extend themselves to the Midlands ‘top side’. The two sides are level on points, separated by Arsenal’s superior goal difference. In an era of Premier League football clubs having an international ownership, Randy Lerner has shown that it need not all be debt-laden gloom and doom. Whether he has put his own money in or is in hock to a variety of banks, I know not. If it is the latter, he has managed the situation in PR terms considerably better than the owners of West Ham and Portsmouth.
For those who seek solace in omens, expect that Arsenal will fail to win. The clubs have met five times in the immediate aftermath of Christmas, Villa winning thrice, the remainder drawn encounters. One hundred and four years ago, the two teams met on the same date, Arsenal succumbing to a 1-2 reverse. The two most recent encounters ended all square with Arsenal the authors of their own misfortune in letting a two-goal lead slip at Villa Park this time last year. Ho and indeed, ho, ho. That was then but this is now.
From the side that flattened Hull in more ways than one, little change is expected. Late last week, a Fabregas return seemed to be on the cards. Having failed to complete a training session on Christmas Eve, I suspect it will be the trip to Portsmouth that sees the mercurial Spaniard return. Armand Traore is fit once more, recovering from the niggle picked up at Anfield. That being the case, it would be a surprise if he were not included in the starting line-up. Pace is something that the Villa attack has in abundance. Whilst Silvestre has experience, he may be given a torrid time by Young, Downing or Milner, their youthful exuberance potentially outweighing any nous that is lacking on their part.
It is the axis of Milner and Young which may provide Arsenal with a potent attacking opening. Both like to push forward which will leave space, Diaby being more than happy to exploit such opportunities in the past, pressing onwards to the opposing penalty area when given the chance to do so. The speed of Arsenal’s attack is something which may neuter their Villa counterparts to some extent; if you know that the outcome of putting too many players into attack is to be hit with a faster counterstrike, the natural reaction is to restrict your own attacking instincts. Walcott can meanwhile keep Downing and Warnock very busy by pushing on the right, keeping Villa stretched on either flank will be a key feature if Arsenal are to prevail.
The team I would expect Arsene to go with is:
Almunia; Sagna, Vermaelen, Gallas, Traore; Denilson, Song, Diaby; Walcott, Arshavin, Eduardo
Villa should not be taken lightly. They have won at Anfield and Old Trafford, beating Chelsea at Villa Park but held by Tottenham at home in their recent encounter. These results were threatened last year so this season cannot held to be a flash in the pan. Arsenal has yet to record a victory over today’s visitors at The Emirates, last year’s 0 – 2 defeat preceded by two 1 – 1 draws. Villa enjoy their visits but this time do not encounter an Arsenal side in the throes of navel-gazing as has been the case previously. This Arsenal team are alive to the chance of catching Chelsea and have a determination about themselves which is often overlooked.
Villa are an opponent to be respected but not feared. This is an afternoon where Arsenal has the chance to take a big step towards catching Chelsea. Forty years ago, astronauts bucked historical trends by landing on the moon, taking giants leaps for mankind. I seek nothing so grandiose; three points will suffice.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.