Arsenal v Aston Villa - Match Preview

Pre-Match Report

Arsenal v Aston Villa - Match Preview

Emirates Stadium

By Richard Clarke

"Our experience in these last six games has been that we had to fight to win each one," remarked a relaxed Arsène Wenger ahead of the Aston Villa's visit to Emirates on Saturday. "We don't expect that to be any different until the end of the season.

"We must just play as well as we can, develop the quality of the game we want to play and fight for each other. The Premier League has high demands physically and mentally, we just want to enjoy it."

'Enjoy' it? Really?

The 1-0 win chiseled out at Everton on Wednesday surely can only be pleasurable upon reflection. One of those tough days at the office that saves its satisfaction until you slump into your favourite armchair back home and can afford yourself an weary glow of contentment.

The victory was hard-fought but deserved; the type of nail-biter that defines a campaign.

But it put Arsenal into third for the first time this season, one point above Tottenham and with a healthy cushion to fifth-place Chelsea.

There has been an ominous determination about Wenger's men in recent weeks. They dropped easy points in January as the absence of frontline full-backs, plus their deputies, blunted their game. Once Arsenal did not have to field four centre-backs across the defence, their record improved.

Wenger always thought it was possible.

"Am I surprised? No. But pleased? Yes. People questioned our attitude because we lost some games [in January] from leading situations at Fulham and Swansea. Recently it has been the reverse. But in the Fulham game, we'd played Saturday-Monday, finished with ten men and had no full-backs at the time. Since then we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.

"At that time [this comeback] was difficult to predict. But I knew one thing - we wouldn't give up. We were ready to fight until the end of the season and that's all we promised ourselves.

"In fairness, we always had a good spirit and attitude but when you don't win games, people question that. Maybe what made us survive was the quality of our attitude."

On Saturday, Wenger can pick from the same squad as the one that toughed it out at Everton. In addition, Sebastien Squillaci is fit. Abou Diaby made a goalscoring comeback in the Reserves on Tuesday but Wenger is likely to give him at least one more second-string run before adding the midfielder to his senior squad.

Aston Villa were the first side to visit Emirates in the Premier League and have taken the most amount of points away from Arsenal's 'new' home - eight.

They looked set to add a FA Cup victory to that tally in late January when they led 2-0 at half-time in North London. However the home side's three goals in seven minutes was perhaps the first real indication of the comeback capacity Arsenal would develop with such devastating effect a month or so later.

Just before Christmas, Wenger's men secured victory in the League at Villa Park with an injury-time strike - another trick they have pulled off with consistency since then.

Villa's Premier League record since that defeat has been W3 D5 L3 and they have sunk to 15th in the table. But they are 10 points clear of the drop zone with only 27 available.

"I don't think they are in trouble because the teams behind them are too far away," said Wenger.

"For me, they are a good side if you look at the players they have. They lost Darren Bent [to injury] but if you look at the names and quality of their players, they are a threat to everybody."

However, Wenger argues, the nature of those two victories earlier this season may help Arsenal this weekend.

"[The FA Cup win] can lift our side because it gives us belief that, no matter what happens, we can comeback," said the manager.

"And at Villa Park, I remember Benayoun scoring the winner from a corner, which is something you don't expect. That brought us two important extra points on the night and against Everton we again scored from a corner. It all goes against the idea that we are not good on set-pieces. Benayoun is a technical player and you don't expect him to score a header. But on the night we were very grateful."

However the recent chapters in Arsenal's season have been one long tale of the unexpected. Sunderland, Liverpool and Newcastle all had late twists. Smashing seven past Blackburn, five past Spurs and three in 45 minutes past Milan was surreal. Only Everton can be called in any way 'regulation'. And that would be doing the home side a deep disservice.

In his post-match press conference at Goodison Park, Wenger was at pains to point out the challenge ahead. Overtaking Tottenham is one thing, staying there really is another.

Understandably, much is made of the visit of Harry Redknapp's side to Chelsea on Saturday lunchtime. One or both will drop more points. That is a definite - one of the few around.

Wenger sees a danger in presumption right now - like the one that Arsenal's momentum must be able to keep them in their current position until the season ends.

"Look," said the Frenchman, "if you ask anybody who is in this fight, they will all tell you the same - third is better than fourth.

"But," he added, "if you have no choice, you take fourth and the opportunity in the [Champions League] play-off.

"Certainly nobody wants to finish fifth.

"Let's just see how it goes now. I believe Newcastle is still in the fight, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool maybe is a bit far but you never know.

"We have come from deep. For us, planning is completely out, just play your next game as well as you can and accept the verdict. We have to be humble, focused and keep our feet on the ground.

"We have gone through some difficult times during the season. So, at the moment, we are in the mood to just focus on the next game and try to do well. After that, we will cope with what happens.

"I believe our pride will be to give absolutely everything until the end of the season and that's the only way to have a chance."

As willful and wonderful as Arsenal have been in the past six weeks, ‘a chance' is all they have earned.

They may be third yet nothing is decided. The fight must go on.

But Wenger's side have shown they have all the strength they require.


Team News

Arsenal: Coquelin (hamstring), Wilshere (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Mertesacker (ankle)

Aston Villa: N'Zogbia (doubt - knee), Clarke (knee), Dunne (collarbone), Bent (ankle), Delph (ankle)


Random Facts

Villa's Premier League record at Emirates Stadium is W2 D2 L1.

Villa grabbed a 1-1 draw in the first Premier League game at Emirates in 2006. Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie were on the bench. Johan Djourou started. They are the only players from the Arsenal squad that day still at the Club.

Villa are the only team who have not scored from a corner in the Premier League this season.

If Arsenal make it seven straight wins it will be their best run of victories since October 2007.

This season, Arsenal have won all their games that have kicked-off at 3pm on a Saturday.

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