Saturday’s Premier League programme caps off with a handsome-looking top-four six-pointer between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park.
Unai Emery’s side defied expectations in midweek Premier League action as Leon Bailey’s deflected goal inspired them to a well-deserved 1-0 win against reigning champions Manchester City.
If you look at the scoreline, Wednesday’s triumph against Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning team was not emphatic. However, Villa outclassed their visitors, garnering 22 shots on goal while conceding just two.
Beating Man City under such circumstances consolidated the Birmingham outfit’s position in the title race, keeping them within a four-point distance of leaders Arsenal.
Heading into stoppage time, the Gunners were tied with the Hatters at 3-3 following an action-packed opening hour of play and seemed on the precipe of dropping points for the first time since early November.
But marquee summer arrival Declan Rice offered them salvation, as he did against Manchester United in September, netting a vital 97th-minute winner to propel Arsenal to a nervy 4-3 victory.
Bailey’s match-winning strike against Man City carried exceptional weight as Villa equalled an impressive club record, posting a 14th consecutive Premier League win at Villa Park.
It’s been almost a century since the Lions last enjoyed such a prolific home run, and it’s equally significant that Villa achieved that feat by arresting a decade-long winless run against City in the top flight.
Given the stature of their opposition, Emery won’t lose much sleep over halting his side’s six-game winning home league streak via multiple-goal margins.
But there’s not much time for celebration either, even though Christmas came early for the Midlands club on Wednesday.
The Spaniard has an extra incentive to preserve Villa’s dominant home form as he goes up against a team that fired him in 2019, having only lost once in his five career matches against former employers (W1, D3).
Arsenal are positive they made the right choice by replacing Emery with Arteta, who came close to leading the club to their first Premier League title in two decades last season.
Despite falling narrowly short of Man City, the Gunners have another opportunity to bring the crown back to north London, and thriving where the champions failed would be a statement of intent.
The visitors enter this weekend in a buoyant mood after racking up a six-game winning streak in all competitions, including a late 1-0 win at Brentford on their last top-flight travel.
Kai Havertz’s 89th-minute strike in that game aligned with Arsenal’s new-found proclivities for grabbing late winners, having made an unprecedented Premier League feat in 2023.
Rice’s last-gasp heroics at Kenilworth Road saw Arsenal become the first side in English top-flight history to bang in five winners on or beyond the 90th minute across a single calendar year.
Villa’s win against the Cityzens came at a potentially high cost as the man-of-the-match-award winner Bailey limped off the pitch at the final stretch.
If he fails to recover in time, the Jamaica international will join long-term absentees Bertrand Traore, Emiliano Buendia and Tyrone Mings on the sidelines.
Arsenal will likely be without Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira, Thomas Partey and Jurrien Timber until 2024, while Takehiro Tomiyasu picked up a calf injury last weekend.
Aston Villa potential starting line-up:
(4-4-1-1): Martinez; Konsa, Carlos, Torres, Digne; Diaby, Luiz, Kamara, McGinn; Tielemans; Watkins.
Arsenal potential starting line-up:
(4-3-3): Raya; White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko; Odegaard, Rice, Havertz; Saka, Jesus, Martinelli.
We Say: Aston Villa 2-1 Arsenal
Despite losing their last four Premier League encounters against Arsenal, Villa seem well-positioned to break that barren run.
With renewed enthusiasm at Villa Park and the Gunners’ rather unconvincing showings on the road, we back Emery to avenge last season’s 4-2 defeat at this stadium.
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