By Chris Harris
Of all the sides who aspire to break into the top four this season, Aston Villa look the best equipped.
All the ingredients appear to be in place at Villa Park. They have a shrewd manager in Martin O'Neill, a healthy dose of matchwinners and sufficient strength in depth after a flurry of summer signings. And let's not forget Gareth Barry, who still plies his trade in claret and blue despite public interest from Liverpool.
Villa made an encouraging start to the season but have hit a rough patch of late, coming a cropper in their last two games against Newcastle and Middlesbrough. However, O'Neill was seconds away from engineering a victory at Emirates Stadium last season and he has the personnel to cause Arsenal more problems this weekend.
We asked Bill Howell of the Birmingham Evening Mail for a Villa perspective ahead of Saturday's big game. Read on for his assessment of Villa's new signings, the tactics they might employ at the Emirates and the Barry summer saga.
THE STORY SO FAR
"Are Villa capable of breaking into the top four? That is the million-dollar question. Occasionally yes, and occasionally no. They have done extremely well with 20 points from 12 games, it was 20 from 10 but the last two were real disappointments. There is no question that the team is heading in the right direction. If you compare the team from Martin O'Neill's first game - which was at the Emirates - with the team which went to Arsenal last year, and the team which is likely to play on Saturday, they are making great strides. They now have strength in depth. You can try and guess their midfield for Saturday and you would struggle - that's not been the case before. One or two key players will be on the bench. I tend to agree with Alan Hansen though, the top four are the top four and they are there to stay for the foreseeable future. Those teams have their off-days - and Arsenal have had a few this season against Fulham, Hull and Stoke - but it doesn't take them long to bounce back with style and panache."
"Carlos Cuellar has done extremely well, he had to wait for his chance but he has done well alongside Martin Laursen or out at right back. Brad Friedel has had one or two wobbles early on but now looks really assured. The full backs have struggled really, both Luke Young and Nicky Shorey have admitted that they are still getting to know what is required of them. That will take some time. James Milner, who had to wait an inordinate amount of time to make his debut, is now making good progress. There is even talk of him possibly being called up into the England squad. Steve Sidwell also had to wait his turn but came on at Wigan and scored a cracker. Then he scored against Middlesbrough and then gave away the three points right at the end. In general they have done OK but this is still a side which is getting to know each other because so many new faces arrived in the summer. There is an awful lot more to come from them. But at the moment they are still relying heavily on the same old faces - Gareth Barry, who has been excellent again this season, Martin Laursen, the captain, and John Carew up front, even though he has had his troubles of late."
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
"I was extremely surprised that Gareth Barry stayed because Liverpool came knocking on the door with a huge sledgehammer. But give the Villa chairman credit because not many clubs would have been able to turn Liverpool down. Robbie Keane was an extremely popular player at Tottenham Hotspur and yet he ended up at Anfield relatively quickly. The Barry saga dragged on and on and on and it's not over yet. We're only six weeks away from the January transfer window and this story will take another twist. He's got 18 months left on his contract and no one is getting carried away. The very best clubs would be extremely interested in taking Gareth, but they have managed to keep him and that was definitely the best piece of business in the summer for Villa's fans. He has been central to them this season."
"Villa should have won at the Emirates last year and the year before they were also very close to ending this ridiculous run of results against Arsenal. I think it's 15 games now stretching back to 1993 since they won at Arsenal. Carew has picked up a couple of injuries and if he can't play it would be a huge blow to Villa because he is pretty central to their plans. Stilian Petrov should come into the midfield with Barry, Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker, all experienced Premier League players. Ashley Young seems to be an extremely dangerous player when he is given a free role and I think if Carew doesn't play he will become very important to Villa's tactics. Gabriel Agbonlahor's ability to hold up the ball has been in question because he is so fast he thrives on the ball over the top, but that won't happen at Arsenal, they are too shrewd to wait on the halfway line for that. But Agbonlahor has developed this ability to hold the ball up which Villa will need if Carew isn't fit. Young could play off Agbonlahor so you will see Villa being confident in possession, probably defending deep but with the ability to play the ball to Young to exploit any gaps which may open up as the game goes on. But it is a real tough one this, there is no one in the Villa camp who really believes this will be a walk in the park. It will be a severe test."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"If you look at Arsenal, there is no doubt that they produce the best football, the most eye-catching football. It's not always the most successful in terms of trophies, and they are sometimes susceptible to more powerful, direct sides, but they are a class act."