It’s not easy to play on a Monday night after all your rivals have won their respective matches. Given that Manchester City and Chelsea leapfrogged us, all the pressure is on our back now. And, if there is a city that have clubs that I hate to see at the opposite end of the pitch, it’s Birmingham.
We lost Eduardo and our title in Birmingham in 2007-08. We lost the Carling Cup Final against Birmingham in 2010-11. We lost to Aston Villa at the Emirates in the penultimate match of 2010-11 and forfeited direct Champions’ League qualification to Manchester City. Finally, we lost to Aston Villa on the opening weekend of this season.
Speaking of Villa, our next opponents owe us big time. They already took too many points away from us in the reverse fixture on the opening day of the season in the match that was one of the most horrible experiences we have had this season. Anthony Taylor – who was in charge as referee – had an absolute shocker. He was lenient to the Villa players who tried to mutilate Jack Wilshere, didn’t hand marching orders to Vlaar who should have been booked for the second time, had shown a harsh second yellow card to Koscielny and a penalty to Villa after which the visitors took the lead.
Furthermore, our best player in pre-season Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suffered an injury that forced him to miss the next 19 games in the Premiership. Lady Destiny decided to heal Alex ahead of the match against…Aston Villa. Both of our full-backs got nasty hits during the game – Sagna’s fall was a horror-scare and Gibbs earned a cut to his head.
Truth be told, for most of the match against the Villains we weren’t up to our standards. Our shape was nowhere to be seen without Mikel Arteta (Mathieu Flamini wasn’t our player yet) as Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey left our back four too exposed. We scored the first goal of the game but our attack wasn’t sharp enough. Tomas Rosicky was our best player on the pitch and came close to equalizing on two occasions but it was one of those days when everything is against you.
It should be said that we didn’t win our last match at Villa Park. It ended 0:0 due to the fact Giroud’s creative efforts weren’t met with proper finishing from his team-mates. Koscielny had the best chance to change the score-line but he sent his shot from a promising position over the bar. Santi Cazorla’s brace at the Emirates that included a late winner with five minutes to go saved us three points in the reverse fixture. It proves Paul Lambert is a dangerous opponent to Arsene Wenger and we have to be at our best today in order to bring all three points back home.
Luckily for us, Aston Villa haven’t been the best hosts in the league. Their home form has been appalling over the last few seasons and given that our away form has been exactly the opposite, we should win this one comfortably.
If there is a question of all questions, it is: How will our team look like in Theo Walcott’s absence?
Yes, we’ve been used to playing without Theo before he returned, scored five goals and proved to be our sharpest spear in the attack. His injury has hit us on so many levels – I believe our players are as confident with the pacey Englishman in the team as our opponents are scared when they know they have to cope with his blistering pace. His performance against the Spuds in the FA Cup has shown another dimension of our attacking game – “a false nine” supported with pacey wingers like Gnabry and Cazorla.
Now, we have a lot of options at our disposal. Given that Olivier Giroud is available again, the big Frenchman will probably lead our attack at Villa Park. He has scored against the Villains this term already and in the last two away matches has picked up a goal (Newcastle) and an assist (West Ham).
It is more difficult to know who is going to support Giroud. Serge Gnabry was excellent against then Spuds but then again, he played against Danny Rose. The German wonder-kid has scored a goal (Swansea) and earned a penalty (Crystal Palace) in two important away victories, while his assist for Cazorla’s opener last weekend was superb. He had a decent cameo at Old Trafford as well which proved that our game needs width and Gnabry is one of rare players in our squad that can offer it. We might see Jack Wilshere on the right flank though. He has scored once at Villa Park – in our 4:2 victory in 2010-11 – and we would like to see both Jack on the score-sheet and a two-goal-margin victory in Birmingham.
Santi Cazorla had a brilliant match against the Spuds as well but he hasn’t clicked with Mesut Özil yet. Given that the German is back from his shoulder injury, we might see the two German internationals Özil and Podolski for the first time together in the starting eleven and I’m intrigued with all the fireworks their connection make might make.
There is a remote possibility that Wenger might want to try with Özil as a false nine, Cazorla on the left wing and Gnabry on the right. In that scenario, Wilshere would play in central midfield next to either Arteta or Flamini. Given that Cazorla has been rather inconsistent this season and has rarely put two good performances together, Tomas Rosicky – who has shown characteristics of a real leader on the pitch this season – might get a chance on the left flank.
In the midfield, Arteta and Flamini – a combination that I don’t prefer – will start in a double-pivot role. Our back four from the match against Spuds should start tomorrow as well. If things go well, Oxlade-Chamberlain might get a chance to replace either of then given that Wenger has said that he sees Oxlade-Chamberlain as a developing central midfielder.
Aston Villa are not without quality players but most of them have underperformed this season. Christian Benteke – who had saved Aston Villa from relegation last season single-handily – has suffered from the second season syndrome so far. He scored four goals in the four opening matches – just like our Giroud – including a brace in the reverse fixture but has failed to score a single goal in eleven games since an equalizer against Newcastle in the fourth match of the season – however he suffered a serious injury early on. Gabriel Agbonlahor has been in form against Swansea and Sunderland – perhaps that’s why Aston Villa have enjoyed a two-match-unbeaten streak.
We should win this fixture easily as there is a gulf in quality between the two sides. We are one of the best teams in the league and Aston Villa – despite being five points away from the relegation zone – are among those that should organize a full-scale party if they stay in the league. However, the way referees have done their job so far doesn’t bring a smile to my face.
Manchester City and Chelsea have been on the better side of wrong key decisions this season and I wouldn’t be surprised if they get a little help in order to stay above us from the officials tomorrow. Jack Wilshere has been targeted by the opponents on the pitch and referees don’t like him either so he should stay calm no matter what the Villains do to him tonight.
I hope for a goal or two from Podolski in case he starts on the left flank. His international colleague Özil should help him with an assist or two. I’m not the best when it comes to predictions – I wasn’t bad here though – but I’d go with our favourite result 2:0 with goals from Arteta (penalty) and Podolski.