By Richard Clarke
Could the FA Cup open up for Arsenal this year?
Much has been made of the Club's three straight defeats in the Premier League during 2012. However that disappointing run was punctured with a crucial Third Round win over Leeds United on a memorable Monday night at Emirates Stadium just after the New Year.
Thierry Henry came off the bench with the scores deadlocked at 0-0 and... well.... if you don't know what happened after that then you have probably surfed onto Arsenal.com by mistake.
That 1-0 win came less than 24 hours after Manchester City had been dumped out of the cup by their cross-town neighbours.
Aston Villa's visit to Emirates on Sunday will be similarly preceded by Manchester United's trip to arch-rivals Liverpool.
Elsewhere Chelsea go to a QPR side who have already beaten them at Loftus Road. Even Newcastle have a banana-skin of a tie at Brighton.
This conjecture may add up to a big, fat footballing nothing - especially if Arsenal fail to see off Alex McLeish's side of course - however perhaps Wenger's men are due a little fortune right now. The defeats to Fulham, Swansea and Manchester United have all been see-saw affairs in which Arsenal had control for significant periods. Yes, they failed to get what their manager believes they deserved but, each time, there was merit in parts of their performance.
In football-speak, they ‘turned up'. And victory on Sunday might just allow them to pick out a glint of silverware on the horizon.
"If you qualify of course there are openings there," said Wenger. "That's why it is important that we keep the focus on qualifying on Sunday. Then, you never know, sometimes you can have runs later [in the competition] which can be easier than those at the start. But you can't choose them, that is the charm of the cup.
"For us, a win is important. We were on a strong run and suddenly we have hit three disappointments. What is difficult to take is that all the three games we could have won. That makes me think that giving just a fraction more will get us back on track and we will go on a run again."
The return of key players in key positions will help. Arsenal have been operating with makeshift full-backs for the past six weeks. That will change if Bacary Sagna passes a fitness test on Saturday. Even if he does not Francis Coquelin, one of the deputies, is back. Henry and Mikel Arteta also face examinations ahead of the game but, on Friday, Wenger seemed genuinely hopeful of their return. In addition, left-back Kieran Gibbs is set to return to training on Monday.
Henry's contribution against Leeds was, in part, down to the absence of Robin van Persie, who was afforded time off to recharge his batteries. However Wenger suggested that his side would be virtually full-strength this time.
"I gave him a week holiday before the last FA Cup game but now we are at a moment when, for the confidence of the team, it is important we come back and win."
Villa have lost just once since Yossi Benayoun's late header secured victory for Arsenal in Birmingham just before Christmas. During that time they have won at Chelsea and acquired Robbie Keane on loan from LA Galaxy. The Irishman announced his return with a brace against Wolves last weekend.
"They are a good side if you look at the names they have on the team-sheet," said Wenger. "Any team in the Premier League is difficult to beat, whether it is for qualification in the Cup or points in the League, and you always have a tough job with Aston Villa.
"They are a side with young, talented players and they are always dangerous going forward. The pace they have up front, with the likes of Agbonlahor and Albrighton, is dangerous. And you see that Robbie Keane has come back and scored goals straight away. That shows you the quality of their players.
"The most important thing is that we are ready for it and come out of the blocks with full power. We did not do that against Manchester United. I feel in the second half we put in a very good performance but in the first we were a bit jaded."
At his press conference, Wenger admitted that if the game's gods gave him a choice between the FA Cup trophy and a spot in next season's Champions League he would opt for the latter. It shows why he talks about 15 years in Europe's top competition when that long-laboured statistic about ‘years without a trophy' is trotted out.
Having said that, an hour or so earlier, Wenger had smiled broadly when a couple of FA Cup facts were put to him - namely that he is the only Arsenal manager to win the FA Cup multiple times and his side's 18-game unbeaten run between 2001 and 2004 is still a post-war record.
"I was always accused of not treating this competition with respect but my record shows [otherwise]," he said.
"You can see now, with the teams at the top of the Premier League, how difficult it is to run for four different trophies. What we tried last year was absolutely exceptional. But then we had some bad luck in the FA Cup because we had to play Manchester United away from home in a Quarter-Final just after having played Barcelona.
"We had a bad schedule but we still treated the competition with respect.
"I love the FA Cup, I think it's a top-level competition and I will always fight to win it. I have won it four times, lost one Final and, as for Semi-Finals, I don't know [the number].
"But we always try to go as far as we can."
Arsenal: Mikel Arteta (test - calf), Thierry Henry (test - calf), Sagna (test - ankle), Jenkinson (back), Santos (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (groin), Djourou (hamstring), Diaby (hamstring). Gervinho, Chamakh (African Nations Cup duty)
Aston Villa: N'Zogbia (heel), Herd (ankle), Lichaj (hip).
Sunday's meeting is the first FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Aston Villa in 29 years
If Thomas Vermaelen plays on Sunday, it will be only his second ever appearance in the FA Cup
Arsène Wenger's record in the FA Cup Fourth Round - P18 W11 D3 L4
Arsenal have not lost an FA Cup tie at home since February 1997
Aston Villa have taken eight points from their Premier League visits to Emirates.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.