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Aston Villa Preview: A Time For Heroes Not Villains

The trip to Villa Park provides an opportunity to consign an awful November to the history books, signing off with a win that would temporarily take Arsenal to the top of the Premier League. The grounds for optimism have diminished in the last two performances – one and a half to be more accurate.

The side which performed so poorly in Braga contained seven changes from that which imploded against Tottenham. The changes made were likely to be reversed but Wenger’s hand has been forced by the absence of his captain, out for a couple of weeks at least.

Wenger was adamant that he has no intention of relieving Fabregas of the captaincy yet I fail to see why this was even an issue. Whilst some have seriously countenanced such action being taken, believing that the Spaniard is still in sulking over his failed move to Barcelona, those critics overlook one important character trait; Fabregas is a winner and his demeanour suggests to me that he is unhappy with his own form, frustrated by injury – perhaps returning to action too soon?

With Chelsea visiting Newcastle and United hosting Blackburn, Arsenal has the toughest fixture. Psychologically it would be a massive boost for the players to win and win well today. It would also increase the pressure on two opponents who are spluttering in form. Chelsea could go onto the pitch at St James’ Park in third place, barely four weeks after the procession to the crown was heralded in the media. Such a turnaround in fortunes would be negative for them.

Pre-match, Robert Pires facing Arsenal is hogging the headlines although he is likely to be a substitute for the hosts. Personally, I wish him well at his new club aside from any fixture involving Arsenal when I hope that he and his teammates suffer from a collective failure to find any form and lose heavily. Perhaps that is overly optimistic but surely optimism is the heart and soul of being a football supporter?

With Fabregas out, Denilson is likely to form the central midfield partnership. Playmaking will probably fall on the shoulders of Samir Nasri although many would insert Jack Wilshere, I would omit him on recent form where tiredness seems to have been issue. With that in mind, it would be an attacking triumverate of Arshavin, Chamakh and Walcott supported by the previous trio.

The line-up I would select is:

Fabianski; Sagna, Djourou, Squillaci, Clichy; Denilson, Nasri, Song; Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin

The suspicion is that Koscielny will return to the centre though. I was surprised by his return last weekend in place of Djourou as the Swiss had done nothing wrong in the previous two games. It was a clear indicator that, at the moment, the French duo are his first choice. When Vermaelen returns, it will be interesting to see which of that pair is considered first choice with the older of the two likely to win that battle.

On the subject of long term injuries, it was good to see Aaron Ramsey return for the reserves. He has since joined Nottingham Forest on loan until 3rd January 2011, conveniently avoiding being cup-tied domestically although the East Midlands club’s diminished status means that he will be free for the Europa League campaign…

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow when Limpar will be filling in with the report.

Villa Park Point IS A Good Result

Aston Villa 0 – 0 Arsenal

A hard fought draw last night has come at some cost. The point itself allowed Chelsea to leapfrog into top spot with a two point safety zone, a gap which could be five by the time Arsenal kick-off against Manchester United on Sunday. In itself, that is not the cost. The real problems for Wenger came in the first hour of last night’s match. Thomas Vermaelen has scans today to ascertain the full extent of his injury whilst Eduardo has another hamstring strain to contend with, previous history suggesting his absence may be up to three weeks.

The former meant Sol Campbell came into the fray, Wenger unsure of whether the former England international will replace Vermaelen at the weekend or if someone else will, presumably Mikael Silvestre. The Belgian international left Villa Park on crutches according to his manager but whether his fibula is broken or not will become known today; an anxious wait for Wenger no doubt. The injury to Eduardo is of more immediate concern in that Arsene will have to decide pretty quickly whether or not it is serious enough to warrant a quick dip into the transfer market, perhaps a loan deal rather than permanent signing, with Nicklas Bendtner barely back to match fitness.

As for the match itself, Arsenal will be more disappointed of the two teams to have not won the game. Both would have felt equally aggrieved had they lost. Villa had woeful finishing to thank for ending the 90 minutes goalless – and the hand of Almunia – whilst the visitors were left cursing the woodwork. Stewart Downing had two glorious opportunities to make the evening worse but failed to force Almunia into even making a save. The first a tame effort over the bar came immediately before Campbell entered the fray whilst the second, perhaps the most criminal miss, saw him head wide weakly as Young’s cross evaded all to reach Downing at the far post.

It was a match that neither side dominated entirely; it ebbed and flowed with Arsenal coming closest to breaking the deadlock. That could have been different as early as the fourth minute, Agbonlahor shooting across Almunia, forcing the Spaniard to turn the ball aside. A frequent criticism of the Arsenal goalkeeper is that he cannot win matches with his performances. Last night, he may not have done that but he earned a point with the only save of note he had to make. Will it stop the critics? Doubtful but rather forlornly, there is the hope that it will make them think twice about condemning him so quickly.

Equally, Brad Friedel will be thanking the footballing gods for the intervention of the woodwork. Fabregas waltzed through the Villa penalty area as the interval approached, beating the Villa custodian with his shot only to see it rebound to safety from the base of the post. Rosicky in the second half was equally unlucky. Arshavin broke away from the Villa defence, his shot parried by Friedel, the rebound landing to Fabregas. The Spaniard set Rosicky who thundered his drive against the underside of the crossbar and before he could finish off the job, he and Ramsey got confused, the Czech eventually putting the ball into crowd.

It was a match high on effort but crucially for Arsenal, I think they missed Diaby more than any other player. The midfielder seems to excel in these matches, his workrate disguised by a languid style. He and Song are believed by Wenger to be doubtful for the weekend’s clash with United, Song apparently has a knock (and according to Wenger) looked knackered in Cameroon’s exit from the African Cup of Nations.

The injury to Vermaelen is worrying but until the full extent is known, there is little to be gained in panicking, running around shouting, “We’re all doomed“. The Frasers will have their day next week in any case if Wenger does not sign anyone, irrespective of the squads needs, wants or, if he so believes, the do-not needs or do-not wants.

The point gained is not two lost. Personally, I thought 8 out of 12 points from this run of four games would be enough to keep Arsenal in touch, ready to pounce. Two wins in the home games and a draw at Stamford Bridge will see that come true. It is interesting that Arsenal are being written off in that fixture, rather similar to last season. Let’s hope that the same result ensues.

’til Tomorrow

Arsenal Looking For Heroes Not Villains

Arsenal travel to Villa Park for a fixture that starts a run of matches which are being described as if they will make or break the season. Whilst the encounters with FC Porto will be decisive as far as the Champions League is concerned – we either progress or we don’t – the matches against Villa, United, Chelsea and Liverpool will not decide whether or not Arsenal will be champions.

Nor for that matter will they make the final destination any clearer. Once this run is over, there will still be three months of the season to go; Chelsea will still have to play United where one or both will drop points and they have other matches which may cause a stumble, likewise United.

The best example of that is the night we entertain Liverpool. United visit Villa Park whilst Chelsea go to Goodison. There is still a long way to go in this season. Arsenal has to be ready to capitalise whatever the situation, not become despondent if results do not go our way over the next fortnight or so.

The win against Villa at The Emirates just before Christmas was emphatic and much needed at the time. It sent a strong signal to the rest of the Premier League that Arsenal were not going to be there to make up the numbers and that a genuine challenge was emerging this season. A win this evening does the same but rather than defining a challenge as ’emerging’, victory will confirm it, sending Arsenal back to the top of the table albeit until Saturday, at least.

A flurry of activity seems to be building with less than a week left of the transfer window. Huntelaar is being touted as this window’s big signing which may have some truth but, I suspect, has more to do with the resurrection of stories from last summer as the player looks to leave Milan, seeking new, high profile employers that will allow him to bolster his attempt to ensure he is aboard the plane with the Dutch squad as an active player rather than cheerleader-in-chief.

Jack wilshere will meanwhile leave the club on loan by Thursday to gain some experience. The story has been around for a while but I wonder if he would have gone had the FA Cup not be exited last weekend? One player who will not be joining is Chris Smalling from Fulham who has apparently signed for Manchester United.

That is according to their website, the same website that trumpeted the signing of Aaron Ramsey and recently had a profile of Sergio Aguero on it so perhaps nothing can be read into that little snippet other than the United PR staff wanting to distract attention from their huge debts by playing Championship Manager with a transfer budget smaller than that available to Danny Wilson at Swindon.

Either way, there are other centre backs out there, some better than Smalling, some not. When Wenger desires to sign one, they will enhance the squad, hopefully, rather than being the latest Stepanovs.

Back to Arsenal. The squad itself is slowly beginning to return to full strength. Samir Nasri and Nicklas Bendtner have returned to full training, both being on the bench tonight. Having been out for around 3 months, Bendtner will be eager to come back to action and tonight seems a good opportunity for him to gain some time from the bench. It gives Wenger another option up front if he needs it. There are around 16 games left this season and Bendtner could provide 5 or 6 goals in that time, perhaps even crucial ones.

Wenger has been forced to plead for patience as far as Theo Walcott is concerned. Barely into his third decade on this earth , he is being written off as if he is a centre forward with a poorer scoring record than Booby Zamora. Such condemnation provides more evidence of the impatience which still holds sway within a section of the support, the same people who no doubt desire Wenger to hand the club unsustainable debt.

I would expect Wenger to field a starting line-up similar to:

Almunia; Sagna, Vermaelen, Gallas, Clichy; Denilson, Fabregas, Ramsey; Arshavin, Eduardo, Rosicky

A performance akin to that of that at The Reebok would do very nicely, tight defensively and taking chances when they arise at the other end. Three points though, is all that matters, and if the winner comes from a deflection off the referee’s arsenal, who cares? A goal is a goal.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Fabregas Torments Villa As Arsenal March On

Arsenal 3 – 0 Aston Villa

1 – 0 Fabregas (65)
2 – 0 Fabregas (81)
3 – 0 Diaby (90)

Aston Villa arrived on their chariot, conquering all-comers in the notional and current top four, leaving The Emirates firmly on the back foot, acquiring knowledge that their progress, whilst substantial, needs to take a giant step forwards if silverware is to be added. Functional in their approach, they were undone by a solid Arsenal performance, one of the best in terms of containment, compressing the opposition and then stretching them, turning the handles of the rack until the defence was snapped.

Centre stage was taken by Cesc Fabregas, lead actor for an imposing half an hour, yet missing for anywhere between days and weeks. No-one yet knows but the spectre of losing Alex Song and his captain, is materialising in front of Wenger. The manager is, at the moment, rightly unrepentant about introducing the Spaniard into the fray, the result producing evidence of the correctness of his decision. Points gained in his continued absence will assess whether it was faith or folly.

The match itself began as it continued; Eduardo found space in the area following a silky dragback and turn by Diaby, shooting weakly at Freidel. The Croat is this seasons’ Bendtner; devoid of finishes that we know he is capable of, unafraid to take the lead to put himself time and again in the position to miss. Notionally on the left side of the attack, Eduardo is adept at turning up anywhere along the forward line, left, right and centre within moments of the game, adding his value through workrate.

Villa’s defence though was effective in marginalising Arshavin. The wit and guile of recent weeks was absent from the Russian’s game in the first half, a forty-five minute spell where he buffetted and bulwarked by Dunne and Cuellar. Denilson, Nasri and Diaby all fluttered around the midfield, the deft touch of butterflies masking their determination and strength in the challenge. Behind them, Song provided an effective barrier to an almost full-strength Arsenal defence. When the midfield wall was breached, Villa created little threat, the most dangerous of which was created through indecision on Arsenal’s part, the ball eventually cleared to safety after a Gentleman’s Excuse Me from Almunia, Song and Sagna.

The second half threatened more of the same until the introduction of Fabregas. Immediately, the captain proved to be a colossus, belying the notion that the only big players Arsene need look at are those physically so. Big of heart and mind, he provided a cutting edge, a probing run drawing a foul from Dunne. The shortest of run-ups ended with the sweetest of strikes, lifting the ball over the wall and into the corner from whence Freidel had organised his wall. Poor goalkeeping position to face the kick? Yes. Would he have stopped the shot if he were correctly placed? No such was the accuracy of the Fabregas’ effort.

Such moments turn games. Arsenal became more dominant with Villa rocking. Arshavin and Eduardo combined on the left, the Croat racing to the byeline, Fabregas created panic between Dunne and Freidel, Cuellar blocking once more a goalbound effort. The second came in the last time. Traore picked the ball up just outside the Arsenal area, releasing a fifty metre pass that his captain would have been proud of. Walcott picked the pace up with Fabregas inside, providing the ball at perfect pace for the Spaniard to run onto and slide past the advancing Villa ‘keeper. In the process, tweaking his hamstring, willing through the obvious discomfort to produce the match winning advantage.

Villa responded with an effort almost carbon in copy of Agbonlahor’s goal last season. This time though, he was thwarted by the athleticism of Almunia, having been robustly challenged by Gallas. Credit to the young forward for holding off the tackle to get to his feet so quickly. Ashley Young can only hold his head in shame for the manner with which he calculatedly hit the turf in a blatant dive, rightly earning himself a booking which means he misses the upcoming fixture with Liverpool. A fitting punishment for such cowardice.

The win was sealed as Fabregas’ replacement, Ramsey, and Nasri combined to free Diaby. Gliding across the turf as freely as a Bustard through the air, the Frenchman strode unopposed through the Villa half, accepting the invitation as the defence backed off, to curl the ball past Freidel.

Three points were crucial to turn the screw on Chelsea as they will be against Portsmouth on Wednesday. A margin of four points with a game in hand to the leaders was an unlikely outcome for the end of the year following the home defeat to Chelsea, according to the sage and wise pundits on our screens. Humble pie is not yet being eaten but is being cooked into a delicious treat for them.

Last evening, the lifeforce was extracted from my body in listening to the diatribes from those whose lobotomy’s were reversed with nothing inserted, encouraged by Gabrielle Marcotti’s constant denuding of the forward line’s talent, deriding them as ‘Smurfs‘. As easy as it would be to respond in kind, I’ll leave those of a more vindictive bent to take the suitable course of revenge for such cheap chatter.

Quite often I am accused of having glasses, the hue of which is rose in colour. Those who persistently desire the return of Patrick Vieira need to re-assess their own eyewear. We remember Patrick very fondly in ACLF Towers yet never lose sight of the fact that he is no longer the player that he once was; unquestionably powerful in his prime, injury-prone in his fading years.

Midfield is a precarious position for the club for four weeks whilst injuries heal and Alex Song vacates his slot in the first team. Wenger admitted any more absences may produce a short-term requirement but a forward remains his priority, as does, I suspect, cover at centre back.

’til Tomorrow.

Aston Villa Preview: A Land Of Opportunity

The Premier League likes to portray itself as the footballing ‘land of opportunity‘. For Arsenal, it is a golden opportunity in every sense of the occasion. The chance to put some daylight between themselves and fourth place; a temporary chance to snatch second place; the opportunity to claw back the deficit to the leaders to four points. If a team needed incentive to win this afternoon, Arsenal has it.

So do Aston Villa for all of those opportunities afforded to Arsenal, extend themselves to the Midlands ‘top side’. The two sides are level on points, separated by Arsenal’s superior goal difference. In an era of Premier League football clubs having an international ownership, Randy Lerner has shown that it need not all be debt-laden gloom and doom. Whether he has put his own money in or is in hock to a variety of banks, I know not. If it is the latter, he has managed the situation in PR terms considerably better than the owners of West Ham and Portsmouth.

For those who seek solace in omens, expect that Arsenal will fail to win. The clubs have met five times in the immediate aftermath of Christmas, Villa winning thrice, the remainder drawn encounters. One hundred and four years ago, the two teams met on the same date, Arsenal succumbing to a 1-2 reverse. The two most recent encounters ended all square with Arsenal the authors of their own misfortune in letting a two-goal lead slip at Villa Park this time last year. Ho and indeed, ho, ho. That was then but this is now.

From the side that flattened Hull in more ways than one, little change is expected. Late last week, a Fabregas return seemed to be on the cards. Having failed to complete a training session on Christmas Eve, I suspect it will be the trip to Portsmouth that sees the mercurial Spaniard return. Armand Traore is fit once more, recovering from the niggle picked up at Anfield. That being the case, it would be a surprise if he were not included in the starting line-up. Pace is something that the Villa attack has in abundance. Whilst Silvestre has experience, he may be given a torrid time by Young, Downing or Milner, their youthful exuberance potentially outweighing any nous that is lacking on their part.

It is the axis of Milner and Young which may provide Arsenal with a potent attacking opening. Both like to push forward which will leave space, Diaby being more than happy to exploit such opportunities in the past, pressing onwards to the opposing penalty area when given the chance to do so. The speed of Arsenal’s attack is something which may neuter their Villa counterparts to some extent; if you know that the outcome of putting too many players into attack is to be hit with a faster counterstrike, the natural reaction is to restrict your own attacking instincts. Walcott can meanwhile keep Downing and Warnock very busy by pushing on the right, keeping Villa stretched on either flank will be a key feature if Arsenal are to prevail.

The team I would expect Arsene to go with is:

Almunia; Sagna, Vermaelen, Gallas, Traore; Denilson, Song, Diaby; Walcott, Arshavin, Eduardo

Villa should not be taken lightly. They have won at Anfield and Old Trafford, beating Chelsea at Villa Park but held by Tottenham at home in their recent encounter. These results were threatened last year so this season cannot held to be a flash in the pan. Arsenal has yet to record a victory over today’s visitors at The Emirates, last year’s 0 – 2 defeat preceded by two 1 – 1 draws. Villa enjoy their visits but this time do not encounter an Arsenal side in the throes of navel-gazing as has been the case previously. This Arsenal team are alive to the chance of catching Chelsea and have a determination about themselves which is often overlooked.

Villa are an opponent to be respected but not feared. This is an afternoon where Arsenal has the chance to take a big step towards catching Chelsea. Forty years ago, astronauts bucked historical trends by landing on the moon, taking giants leaps for mankind. I seek nothing so grandiose; three points will suffice.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Cesc, Motty and Arsene on Boxing Day

Traditions of Christmas still abound in an everchanging world. Liz still spouts on, families snooze post whichever meal they have gorged on, too much alcohol and kids fighting because one of their toys does not quite function as well as they expected. And football returns on boxing day. Well, it would if the television companies had not meddled. Instead we wait until tomorrow lunchtime for a resumption of action.

Ahead of the clash with Aston Villa, Arsene has noted that armand Traore is the only player whose return is guaranteed from those who missed the fight, sorry, match with Hull City. The noteworthy absentees are minimal in being anywhere near fit, Cesc the nearest, rated as no better than 50:50. Which is a tough one to decipher because Arsene’s 50:50’s rate anywhere between 100% and no chance of playing. More team news will no doubt be forthcoming during today in the lead up to Sunday’s encounter.

According to the manager, the players trained on Christmas Day morn before tucking into their turkey or whatever takes their fancy in this diet conscious game that we live in. Arsene believes the only thing he can give at this time of year is the health of his family and that Arsenal wins their matches. Peace and goodwill to all men on Earth coming in a very poor third, no doubt.

I suspect that Arsene will not be worrying unduly about giving the FA their Christmas card next season, believing that the decision to charge Arsenal with ‘failing to control their players‘ to be a harsh one. Not too sure that he can really defend the players since an sign of a melee is going to see the clubs charged. Better that than having a single player or more facing a suspension through their actions, whilst the club will be fined. Hull are expecting to be hit with a bigger fine as they have been charged more recently than Arsenal with the same offence. It won’t happen like that, of course, since Arsenal are a big four club and therefore deemed to be immediately more guilty than their supposed peers.

Elsewhere, John Motson has decided that the 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane in The Invincibles season was the defining moment of the decade as far as the Premier League is concerned. Whilst I appreciate his rationale in that it sealed the title for a monumental Arsenal team, I am far from convinced that it is more of an achievement in a one-off scenario than the win at Old Trafford to seal the title, a match where United were dominated entirely. Indeed, there could be a strong argument that the victories over Liverpool and Leicester City in that undefeated season required more strength of character to achieve. The latter was a nerve-jangling affair with the history which beckoned provided that defeat was avoided, stress placed upon the players to a greater degree than in a normal 90 minutes.

The Liverpool match displayed even greater mental strength. Coming from behind in the match itself, immediately in the aftermath of a treble crumbling in front of the players’ eyes. The 4-2 win at Highbury was the defining moment of that season, the result which truly indicated that no slip-up in the league would be countenanced.

’til Tomorrow.

Crunch Time – Aston Villa Preview

Hope that your festivities were enjoyable and that the fat bloke with the beard delivered your Christmas wishes to you and yours. Arsene’s wishes for everyone to be fit and well have not come to bear but rather like Number two son wanting a PS3 for himself and a Wii for his brother so that they would not argue over who was going to have a go on them, it was overly optimistic.

Recent games have been described as ‘must win’. I am not happy with such descriptions because I believe every game is a ‘must win’ if you are challenging for the title. And yes, Arsenal are still in the mix thanks to the inconsistency of those above and around us. Time though is running out to take advantage of such frivolity on their part; someone, somewhere, sometime very soon is going to start putting a run together and Arsenal need to be in a position to keep pace with that.

This evening’s visit to Villa Park mirrors last season’s meeting. Just over a year ago, Fabregas and van Persie were the key individuals missing. This time it is the Spaniard and Adebayor. Arguably, the same impact from those unfit to play will be felt. The crucial difference this time is the confidence in the two camps. Villa probably believe they can beat anyone at the moment whilst even the Arsenal players probably cannot tell you which version of themselves will turn up; will it be the lacklustre ones or the galvanised version from the last half an hour or so on Sunday?

The truth is that it needs to be the ones on the top of their game. It is a fixture that both sides need to win for differing primary reasons. Whilst Villa want the points to consolidate their top four position to fulfill their realistic ambition of finishing in a Champions League placing, Arsenal want the win for that as their basic requirement but more importantly to keep in touch with the leaders. Let us be honest here. By the time that this match kicks off, Manchester United ought to have taken maximum points from their visit to Stoke whilst West Brom and Bolton will have probably been put to the sword by Chelsea and Liverpool respectively. A win will be required for the Wenger boys to maintain the current status quo. Failure will mean that the squad will be Deeper Down in the mire; any title flame still flickering would be considerably dimmer but still not totally extinguished.

The absences of Cesc and Adebayor will mean a reshuffle. Defensively, I would not expect any changes unless there are late injuries. In midfield though, Cesc’s absence must surely mean a return to the centre for Denilson. He has worked hard on the flanks but he is not a winger nor does he claim to be. Wenger has the option of putting Diaby in there but I am convinced that this will be the case. It seems likely that Eboue will come in on the right. Diaby is lacking confidence at the moment, or seems to me to be, perhaps being the result of not getting regular games. It is a chicken and egg situation because unless he rediscovers his form, he is not going to get his run of games.

Up front, Bendtner will be given the opportunity to show himself. His media comments this week have been, as per usual, translated wildly from the ‘play me or I go‘ to the more likely, ‘I want to play and believe I can do a good job‘. Perhaps more than anyone in recent months, Bendtner personifies a ‘talks a good game’ attitude. He did not deliver when Adebayor was out. Fundamentally, he has to score goals to force his way into Wenger’s thinking on a more regular basis. Pressure will come if Eduardo’s return is successful next month. Wenger will have a good selection of forwards to choose from and Bendtner will not be the automatic replacement.

A different option for this evening would be van Persie leading the line with Diaby playing the supporting role but this role does not really bring the best out of the Dutchman which is perhaps the defining reason not to play him as the lead striker. I suspect the line-up will be:

Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Clichy; Eboue, Denilson, Song, Nasri; van Persie; Bendtner

With a bench of:

Fabianski, Diaby, Wilshere, Vela, Hoyte, Toure (if fit), Randall

The gameplan Villa employ will no doubt be not dissimilar to the one that they utilised at The Emirates; speedy attacks and swamping midfield. It is up to the Arsenal players to show that fixture was a lowpoint and to use a cliche, once bitten twice shy. The only concern that I have about countering such tactics is the ball over the top of the defence which caught us out for the second goal on that occasion and also Liverpool’s equaliser last Sunday. There cannot be a repeat. Three points are vital whatever the outcome of the other games to stay in touch.

Enjoy the match wherever you watch it. ’til Tomorrow.

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