Thursday, December 11, 2008

EPL: The Battle for 4th. Arsenal vs. Aston Villa Preview

Arsenal travel to Villa Park today in what looks like being another crunch match in the Gunners' up and down season. The battle for fourth place has intensified over recent weeks as Arsenal's poor form has been matched by Aston Villa's good form, the recent match between the two at the Emirates being a perfect example of both sides' seasons to date.

The last time they met, Aston Villa walked away with all three points as the Gunners' were brushed aside quite easily by Martin O'Neill's team. Villa won the battles all over the pitch as Arsene Wenger struggled to come up with ideas to beat the team that O'Neill assembled.

Under the ex-Celtic boss, Villa have been rejuvenated. They have one of the best centre halves in the league in Laursen, a central midfield that can match most teams (Barry and Sidwell) and one of the most electrifying attacks in European football in Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, and a rejuvenated John Carew.

Young's and Agbonlahor's reputations have risen to such heights this season, that both are now frequently linked with moves away from Villa Park. Real Madrid become the latest team to monitor Young, and are being tipped to put in a bid come January.

Carew's injury problems of late has meant that O'Neill has had to re-jig his team slightly. He normally favours three up front with Carew supported by Young and Agbonlahor but recently they have used a more orthodox 4-4-2.

Ironically this means that players like Sidwell and Milner have become more influential and the style of the football has changed to take advantage of the speed of their players up front.

With this in mind, Villa have sat back over recent weeks and caught teams on the break, and away from home, the results have been excellent. The same can't be said at Villa Park, where being the away side, teams normally sit deeply. Villa don't have a player in the team who is creative from midfield, so they have found it hard to break teams down when challenged to do so.

They go into this match against Arsenal with doubts over influential defensive partnership Lausen and Cuellar, both will have late fitness tests after picking up niggling injuries last week. Should either of them fail to pass the late test then Nigel Reo-Coker or Zat Knight are expected to fill in.

Arsenal's problems this season are well documented. They lost players in the summer without ever replacing them as Arsene Wenger put his faith in his "next batch." Unfortunately for Wenger, very few of them have been able to face the challenge head on.

Denilson impressed in the early part of the season but has fallen away recently, Wenger seems to have recognised this and has moved him out of the centre to the right as Song has been brought in. But Song has also proved to be less than illustrious and Arsenal's midfield has been easily out fought no matter who partners Fabregas.

And now with Fabregas looking like he'll miss the rest of the season through injury all of Wenger's chickens have come home to roost. Arsenal's midfield was lightweight before the mercurial Spaniard got injured, now it's paper thin.

Arsenal fans scoffed at making £4million from the recent Lassana Diarra transfer from Portsmouth to Real Madrid, the irony being that he is the ideal player for the Gunners at the moment, and was an Arsenal player a little over 18 months ago.

Wenger is now being forced to splash the cash in January as it now looks a real probability that they could finish outside the lucrative Champion's League places. With Arsenal paying a mortgage of £25million-a-year on their new stadium, this is unthinkable as far as the board is concerned.

However all is not well at board level at the moment. Daniel Fiszman engineered Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith's resignation in the hope of picking up her shares, but now that she has left the club she is no longer held by the gentleman's agreement of selling her stake to a fellow board member. Cue the boardroom turmoil as all the members vie to get in line to "speak" to Lady Nina.

With this in mind Arsene Wenger will have a real fear that pitch related matters will be put behind boardroom matters.

Arsenal will travel to Villa with a depleted squad, no Fabregas, no Walcott, and no Rosicky, while Adebayor is suspended following his controversial sending off last week against Liverpool.

After taking the captaincy from Gallas following his recent outburst, Wenger will have to find another new Captain, and quickly. Manuel Almunia would seem the obvious choice, but this captaincy will be for months rather than days so Wenger could choose someone like Clichy, who has been one of the few players to play well this season.

Going into this game, Villa are the leagues form team. They've won their last three and are unbeaten in six. On current form, Arsenal have fallen away from the Champions League positions even though they're unbeaten in four, but they will be buoyed by the fact that they are unbeaten at Villa Park for the last nine years.

In the press conference yesterday Martin O'Neill was asked if a double over Arsenal was possible, he replied "If we could win the game it would give us a major psychological boost. It would an amazing double if we could beat them at home as we defeated them at their place."

"Of course, if Arsenal win they will have caught up with us immediately."

"They are a talented team who have always qualified for the Champions League without a great deal of fuss."

And when the same question was put to Wenger he said:

"Villa are mathematically in there but if you asked me if they are going to win the title I would say no because they are other teams who to me look better equipped."

"For a place in the top four, they are a threat."

"We are three points behind and have a good opportunity to come back on them. It is a very important game for us."

This game's importance for Arsenal can't be underestimated, at the moment they're only a few points behind, but are without their two best players, and by the time reinforcements in January come around they could be 12 points behind.

A huge match for both teams, and should the result go Villa's way it will be interesting to see how the Arsenal faithful react, more booing?

twitter / WillieGannon