League leaders Arsenal travel to Villa Park to take on Aston Villa in Monday night fixture of this round of Premier League games. Villa head into the game on the back of a 1-0 win in their last league game away to Sunderland. The win brought an end to a disappointing run when they failed to win in five games. The Villans now find themselves in 11th place, with a six point gap between them and the relegation zone. Arsenal had a strong end to December and a good start to January, winning three league games in a row. After surviving the busy Christmas period, the Gunners will want to remain at the top of the league for as long as possible going into the New Year. As a result, they will want to continue the impressive away form they have shown this season.
Both teams have relatively long injury lists going into the game. Aston Villa are without Libor Kozak (Broken leg), Jores Okore (Knee), Chris Herd (Hamstring), Nathan Baker (Hamstring) and Charles N’Zogbia (Calf). Captain Ron Vlaar should recover from a calf injury in time to play in the game. Defender Joe Bennett should also return to the squad after a back injury. Arsenal’s newest injury absentee is Theo Walcott who is out for six months with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament. He joins Abou Diaby (Knee), Yaya Sanogo (Back), Aaron Ramsey (Thigh), Nicklas Bendtner (Ankle) and Thomas Vermaelen (Knee) on the Gunners’ injury list. Arsenal should welcome back Olivier Giroud after recovering from illness. They will also welcome Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back into the squad after a knee injury suffered against Villa on the first day of the season. Kieron Gibbs faces a late fitness test after suffering from a calf injury.
The two sides met on the first day of the season in a game which Villa won 3-1 to the surprise of many. A lot changed after that, with Arsenal going on to be unbeaten in their next nine games and Villa losing six of their next nine. Villa’s win at Arsenal was their third in twelve games against the Gunners, all of which have come away from home. They have not taken all three points at home to Arsenal since December 1998. Villa’s Christian Benteke has not scored a goal in all competitions since September. Arsenal have won six of their last ten meetings in all competitions with Villa, but only two of these have come at Villa Park. Three of their last five meetings at Villa Park have ended in draws. Arsenal assistant manager Steve Bould was in the Arsenal team the last time they lost at Villa Park in the league.
In recent weeks, Gabriel Agbonlahor has been given the opportunity to play as a striker as he did earlier on his career. This has resulted in him scoring two goals in his last two games, his second and third goals of the season. With Benteke struggling in his second season in the Premier League, Villa have needed someone else to shoulder the goal scoring responsibility. Agbonlahor has responded by earning four points for his side. With Libor Kozak out for the rest of the season, Agbonlahor could get more of a chance to play as a striker in the coming months. In Villa’s last game against Arsenal, he was in top form winning two penalties for his side with some direct running. Paul Lambert will hope he can again be the catalyst in getting some points against a confident Arsenal side.
Olivier Giroud has already had a season of ups and downs. The Frenchman began the season well for Arsenal, and has scored eight league goals and contributed five assists for his team. Before his goal against Newcastle in late December, Giroud had gone over a month without a goal, failing to score in eight games in all competitions. After breaking his duck against Newcastle, his goals will be all the more necessary following Theo Walcott’s injury ruling him out for the rest of the season. Giroud scored in this fixture earlier in the season and created two clear cut opportunities which his teammates squandered. A good performance against Villa again will help to give him the confidence he was showing at the beginning of the season.
The fixture is one which could spring a surprising outcome. The Gunners’ unbeaten away record against Villa does count for a lot, but Villa’s win at the Emirates in August shows what they are capable of. Villa have lost four of their last six league games and are not in the greatest of form, so an Arsenal team which is full of confidence will feel that they have the edge going into the game. With Theo Walcott scoring five out of Arsenal’s last nine goals, other players will have to step up for the Gunners to ensure victory. Villa fans will be hopeful of a return to form for Benteke sooner rather than later, and this could be the perfect game for such a return. With all taken into account, I predict a 2-0 Arsenal win.