Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Aston Villa v Arsenal

By Richard Clarke

The past week has given Arsenal many things but surely its most precious gift has been belief.

Arsène Wenger's side mastered their short-term destiny by securing comfortable victories over Tottenham and Montpellier. But then that 180-minute period has ticked off a wide gamut of ‘to-dos' on their November task list:

• please supporters by beating local rivals
• move up Premier League table
• secure Champions League qualification
• see key players return to form (Cazorla, Podolski)
• see lynchpin player start to excel (Giroud)
• keep clean sheet
• see injured players start to return

But there were benefits from outside as well.

Chelsea and Manchester United both lost last weekend. Leaders Manchester City remain unbeaten and seem to be hitting form. However Arsenal have sneaked up to sixth and in the next three weeks take on the two teams directly above them - Everton and West Brom.

Wenger's men have regained their early-season swagger at the right time and, if they can keep it going until Christmas, they could be in a position to challenge at the top.

"I am highly encouraged by [recent results elsewhere] because if you have a team who does not drop points, then no matter what you do you will never come back once the difference is there," said Wenger.

"We had a bit of a difficult period, hopefully now we can come back and show consistency.

"With what is going on in the Premier League, it looks like the team that can show that quality has a chance. So if we are able to show consistency now we have an opportunity to come back on the top teams."

The summer signings have been key to the upturn. Lukas Podolski has three goals in three games, Olivier Giroud has five in six plus a number of assists and Santi Cazorla is already being touted, albeit prematurely, as a potential Player of the Season.

"Their form shows that there are good vibes in the dressing room," said Wenger. "They feel accepted, they feel part of it and they are capable of adapting to our style of play quite quickly. They've been chosen for that [last quality] as well. Especially Giroud who has adapted quite quickly."

Wenger's press conference ahead of the weekend trip to Aston Villa was held on Thursday lunchtime, about 18 hours after the 2-0 win over Montpellier. He did not think he would have to change his side but, the manager suggested, he may well shuffle voluntarily as Arsenal have three important midweek trips coming up, let alone the usual weekend fixtures. This is a busy and important period.

"There are no major injuries, a few tired legs and that will all be assessed on Friday," he said. "I have not decided what I will do yet. I have time and we'll see who is available, who is a bit less available, who is a bit tired and who has some knocks and bruises but there is nothing major."

Aston Villa are third from bottom with only two wins all season. However manager Paul Lambert has ploughed a particular furrow in his first few months since moving from Norwich.

"They are better than [their position]," said Wenger. "Lambert just arrived and it takes some time. They have gone for a youth policy of quality and I think you would always encourage that.

"For me there is not a big difference between finishing in the middle of the table and finishing at the bottom anyway.

"The experience I have is whenever we play there or Villa come to the Emirates, it is a difficult game, which shows they have quality.

"The expectation level is very high, so maybe the team is more under pressure than in any other club up there in Birmingham."

Villa's main threat will come from Christian Benteke, who hails from DR Congo but represents Belgium at international level. His forceful, free-running style has caught the eye since he arrived from Genk in the summer. And, although he did not score, the 21-year-old caused Manchester United untold problems at Villa Park a few weeks ago. Wenger admitted he did have an interest before he went elsewhere.

"Benteke has scored some important goals and plays with complete power," said Wenger.

"He is a little bit of a typical English centre forward, one of a type that has disappeared. You have still some players like that, for example Grant Holt, and Benteke is another one of them.

"For me Belgium produces good players now. Maybe they are a league where we give not enough credit. We say ‘OK, he is doing well, but he is in Belgium'. But you see it when they move away. Look at the number of players they have produced recently - Dembele, Hazard, Witsel.

"Yes we had a look at Benteke and he was interesting. I was surprised when he signed at Villa. But we had already signed Giroud and he had a clause in his contract, so that was an easy decision. When a guy has a clause you can do it as quickly as you want."

Few would swap Giroud for anyone right now. He, more than anyone, has hauled Arsenal back to form in recent games.

While the next six weeks will be interesting, the next five days will be illuminating. The away games at Villa on Saturday and Everton on Wednesday are the type of trips that can decide your season.

Defeat is defeat but you can post-rationalise a point as eminently worthwhile. And, of course, it is.

However wins have restored Arsenal's faith in themselves and only wins will close the gap at the top.

It is a tall order but Wenger's men have form, fitness, momentum and, of course, that rediscovered belief.

It will be tested at Villa on Saturday despite the hosts' parlous Premier League position. Remember last season's was decided by a 90th-minute header from Yossi Benayoun, the smallest player on the pitch.

Villa away is nearly always that sort of game.


Team news:

Arsenal: Walcott (shoulder), Santos (abdominal), Diaby (thigh), Rosicky (tendon), Fabianski (ankle)

Aston Villa: Bennett (knee), Herd (knee), N'Zogbia (knee), Dunne (groin)


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