By Richard Clarke
Aston Villa have won Arsène Wenger’s unconditional respect in the past 12 months.
In the middle of last season the Arsenal manager surprised many by discounting the Birmingham side from the title race - and championing the chances of his own team – when, in fact, Martin O’Neill’s men were better placed in the table.
The Frenchman clearly thought Villa would fade down the stretch while his side would grow stronger.
He was right.
But ahead of Sunday’s clash between the Premier League's third and fourth-placed teams at Emirates Stadium, Wenger was whistling a different tune.
The Frenchman believes Villa version 2009/10 are stronger in both defence and attack than last season’s vintage. He says this could be the campaign in which they break the Big Four monopoly at the top of the Premier League. And, most telling of all, he counts this game as important as any against Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool.
“The next 20 games will give us the answer but they are certainly a threat [to the ‘Big Four’] if you look at their results against the big teams,” Wenger told Arsenal.com. “This year is certainly a chance for them to do it.
“I would say that, with Downing, they have one more offensive weapon than last year. At the back they are maybe stronger too. Last season, when they lost Martin Laursen, they struggled defensively a little bit. They seem more stable this year and have a good defensive record.
“But don’t forget that Villa, for me, are a big investor. If you look at the money they have put into their team it is massive.”
Cesc Fabregas is “50:50” to return after a hamstring injury but Armand Traore has recovered from a similar problem. It was suggested Tomas Rosicky (groin) might make this game but he has not recovered while Nicklas Bendtner (groin) is “two or three weeks” away now.
Like Villa, Arsenal are on a roll. Until the victory at Anfield, there was a feeling they might not be able to win enough big games to be proper title contenders. However, in December, the failure of their rivals to effectively deal with lower-placed teams has brought Wenger’s in-form outfit right back among the frontrunners.
“For me December has been a U-turn for us in the League,” he said. “We beat Stoke, Liverpool, Hull and drew at Burnley so we made some ground up on other teams who dropped points.
“Of course now we want to finish the month well to completely reverse the position. At the end of November nobody gave us a chance. Over the Christmas period we can show in a concrete way that we have the potential to win the title.
“And considering we are in a great position, this is as big a game [as Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea] because it is a very big opportunity for us.”
Of course, last season’s fixture turned out to be Villa’s big opportunity. Despite missing a first-half penalty, they scored twice after the interval to trumpet their early season attack on a Champions League place.
“Yes, they caught us on the break last season,” remembered Wenger. “This year I believe we know what their strength is. Our job is to prevent them counter-attacking and being audacious enough to take the game to them.”
Despite their recent run, Arsenal are still third favourites for the title with many observers. Perhaps they view Wenger's men like he viewed Villa last term - capable of greatness on their day but not over a season.
However Villa have stepped up so Arsenal must do likewise to retain their due defference in the Premier League's pecking order.
That’s is why audacity must be their ally from now until May.
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