The Emirates Stadium, North London
May 15, 2011, 15:00 GMT
It’s the fag end of the season, and the players and fans of Arsenal will be praying for an early close to what has been a demoralizing campaign, starting with the inexorable loss to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final. A long string of draws, losses to Bolton and Stoke City and a consolation win over Manchester United are all that the Gunners have to show. With Manchester City breathing down their neck for the third place, which would guarantee an automatic Champions League spot, the game against Aston Villa is far from being a dead rubber, and the home side must win their remaining two games to safeguard their current position. Manager Arsene Wenger, however, has exuded confidence in his side retaining the third place.
Aston Villa have been below par this season, but have mustered enough points to stay afloat in the league. With manager Gerard Houllier recuperating in the hospital, Gary McAllister will be in charge of the Villans as they take to the Emirates turf. Despite the signing of Darrent Bent for a whopping 24 million pounds, the visitors have not put in any commendable performances so far this year and have been flirting with the relegation zone far too much for their liking. They need one more point atleast to ensure their stay in the top flight, and will be looking to achieve the same against Arsenal.
The previous encounter between the two sides saw youngster Ciaran Clark score a brace for the Birmingham based outfit, only to see Arsenal romp to a 4-2 victory in a pulsating encounter of open, attacking football. The same can be expected for this clash, but the pressure is more on Arsenal to secure a vital victory and aim for a good end to what has been a forgettable season so far.
Team News and Tactical Brief
The Gunners were without the trio of Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy in the last fixture against Stoke City, and their absence was sorely felt as Stoke City put up a spirited display to secure a morale-boosting win over Arsenal. While Clichy will feature in the Villa game, Cesc and Nasri will face late fitness tests. Koscielny joins Diaby and Fabianski in the medical ward, while Rosicky has fallen sick yet again. Vermaelen has returned to fitness and was an unused substitute in the Stoke City game; Wenger has confirmed that the Belgian is a certain starter, with Squillaci partnering him should Djourou fail to regain full fitness.
The biggest threat posed by Villa arises from their wings, in the form of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing – two players with pace and guile, capable of providing good assists to the forward duo of Bent and Agbonlahor. Vermaelen will be a reassuring presence in the defense, ably supported by the improving Koscielny, while Sagna and Clichy will need to balance their defensive duties with their overlapping runs into the opponent half. Should Cesc feature in the game, Wenger would play him alongside Song and Ramsey, to give Wilshere some rest; the Spaniard provides defense-splitting passes and will be vital in Arsenal’s plans of scoring the early goal. Van Persie would have Arshavin and either of Walcott/Bendtner alongside him in Arsenal’s three-pronged forward system.
Villa play a high tempo attacking game, which means Arsenal need to have more of the ball and deny space to the wingers, while the attacking players will need to stop looking for the perfect goal and convert their chances as much as possible. Agbonlahor and Bent can be unstoppable on their day, but cutting supplies to them will render them ineffective and force them to retreat inside further, making it easier for Arsenal’s defenders to snuff out any attacks.
Probable Starting XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Clichy, Song, Fabregas, Ramsey, Arshavin, Walcott, Van Persie
After an injury-ridden first half of the season, the Villa squad is back to full strength, with the exception of Makoun who is out with a calf injury. The Academy players have stepped up in the absence of the regular starters, with the notable names being Marc Albrighton and Ciaran Clark. Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker featured in the center of the field in the last two games, and will do so for the Arsenal encounter. On-loan Kyle Walker, Richard Dunne, James Collins and Luke Young make up the numbers in the defense.
Robin Van Persie has been Arsenal’s shining beacon in a disastrous three months of football, and the Dutchman has been profilic in front of goal, having mustered a new record of eight successive away goals. Dunne and Collins will have to be on their toes to stop him from adding to his tally, while the full-backs will have their hands full with Arsenal’s ‘wingers’ and the overlapping fullbacks. Reo-Coker will be entrusted the task of keeping Fabregas in check, while the wingers will be expected to contribute in both attack and defense. Darren Bent is yet to live up to his huge price tag, but he’s a wily customer and is capable of breaking Arsenal’s still-fragile defense. Agbonlahor’s pace can cause a lot of trouble, and Koscielny’s absence could enable him to play his game. It will need a concerted team effort to come away from the Emirates with a point or more, but it’s not impossible against Arsenal, who are pretty vulnerable at the moment.
Probable Starting XI: Friedel, L.Young, Collins, Dunne, Walker, A.Young, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Downing, Agbonlahor, Bent
- Arsenal have conceded only two goals in their last nine games at home.
- If Villa win this encounter, they will have nicked more points at the Emirates than other teams.
- Robin Van Persie has scored a goal every 99 minutes this season in the league.
- The Emirates is the only stadium in which no goal has been scored from outside the box.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR
Ashley Young (Aston Villa)
After seeing Villa’s season unravel in a dissatisfactory manner, the England winger is contemplating a move away from Villa Park in pursuit of trophies and a chance to play in European football. He will be determined to prove his worth in this game, thereby attracting the interest of Manchester United and Liverpool among other potential suitors. Who knows, even Wenger would be casting eyes on him!
Arsenal 3-2 Aston Villa
It promises to be a repeat of the previous encounter between the two sides, with Arsenal coming out victorious in the end once again. Villa are an unpredictable team who can raise their game against the big four, and Arsenal will go through the usual phases of nerves to concede some goals, probably on counter attacks and setpieces.