By Chris Harris

All bets are off when it comes to the title race but, with European places at stake and the usual scramble for survival, plenty of clubs are set for a nail-biting climax to this Premiership campaign.

Not Aston Villa. Once again they have proved too good to go down but not good enough for a UEFA Cup berth. With little to play for between now and May, Villa's season is in danger of petering out. As Bill Howell of the Birmingham Evening Mail concedes, it has been a challenging year.

"When you talk about being a Villa fan you don't have to go back as far as the European Cup win in 1981 for happier times, you think about the exciting football played under Ron Atkinson, Brian Little and John Gregory," says Howell.

"Their teams played good football and players like Paul Merson, Dion Dublin and Savo Milosevic had a bit of character. Villa were a top-six team and in with a shout of doing something in the cups. Now they don't look like winning anything.

"There's a real malaise around the club at the moment from top to bottom. Takeover talks have been going on for months without any clear progress and there seems to be a lack of leadership on the pitch, a lack of voice there.

"In David O'Leary's defence he tried to sign another centre back after Martin Laursen's long-term injury but in general, Villa have no real pattern of play, no real flair. No one is opening up defences and, although they are pretty rigid and hard to play against, there is nothing really there to excite the fans."

The glaring problem for Villa has been a lack of goal threat. Much was expected of Milan Baros when he arrived from Liverpool last summer but, ultimately, he has been outscored in the Premiership by local lad Luke Moore.

"The young players have got Villa out of the mire this season," says Howell. "Steven Davis has been player of the season by some distance and will get better. He, like Moore, Liam Ridgewell, Gary Cahill and others, has come through the academy. Villa have reaped the benefit of their youth system but they have to marry that with getting established players performing.

"For example, Baros is the best finisher at the club and has scored a couple of cracking goals. He's dangerous and has loads of pace but the team doesn't seem to play to his strengths, which is getting the ball into channels and letting him run onto it.

"On the other hand Moore has not got the same threat but he gives 100 percent, he has determination and heart and the fans love him for that. They are always going to be more patient with someone like Moore because he is from the area.

Since a run of one defeat in 10 games, culminating with an impressive 4-0 win at Middlesbrough, Villa have failed to win in eight games and scored just five times during that period. Frustration is setting in among the Villa Park faithful and Howell can't see life getting any easier this weekend.

"The team defended well against Fulham last week but facing Arsenal on their own patch after they put two goals past Juventus is an altogether different proposition. Villa have given Arsenal a game on quite a few occasions, but only fleetingly do they manage that at Highbury.

"Olof Mellberg is out, which is a huge blow, and it looks like Baros could also miss out with an ankle injury. Villa need to get back to the rigid, solid defensive performances they put in before this recent run to get a point. But it will be really tricky. If Villa get anything from this game it will be an incredible result."

12/1 - Arsenal v Aston Villa: Arsenal to win 4-0 on Saturday

Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to as the source
Chris Harris 31 Mar 2006