Arsenal. The only "Big Four" team that Aston Villa failed to beat at least once last season. Now, with nine injured first team players, and more falling as soon as someone sneezes in their direction, it seems unlikely that Villa will be able to defeat the Gunners for the first time since December 1998. Abandon all hope, ye who enter Villa Park.
In happy news, the man that single-footedly destroyed the Villa last season, Cesc Fábregas, will be unavailable, as he's gone and injured his right hamstring (not to be confused with his left hamstring, which is what kept him out of contention earlier this season). Yet while Fábregas has shown a few flashes of brilliance since his return, the Arsenal lineup has seemed almost better without him. Marouane Chamakh has seemed quite lucky for the Gunners--I wouldn't call it skill, exactly, as he often benefits from being in the right place at the right time, but he's producing, with nine goals in all competitions. Jack Wilshere is way too good for his age, Alex Song has come into his own and Bacary Sagna scored for the first time in years against Everton. In other words, danger is lurking in almost every corner of the pitch.
But what Villa truly need to concentrate on is shutting down Samir Nasri. SamiArse™ has blossomed in the absence of Fábregas and has become the greatest attacking threat for the Gunners. Should the Villa defense fail to shut him down completely, Nasri will find one tiny bit of space and exploit it. Fortunately for Aston Villa, James Collins should return to the lineup to partner Richard Dunne, and the rest of the back line is (somehow) healthy, so as long as Stephen Warnock doesn't do anything moronic and Luke Young remembers that he needs to defend as well as attack, we might see a capable defense. Might.
Arsenal, on the other hand, still remain without Thomas Vermaelen, relying on Sébastien Squillaci for cover. Kieran Gibbs will likely slot in for Gaël Clichy, also doubtful for the match. Whether the Villa will be able to exploit these weaknesses in the Gunner defense likely depends on how Gérard Houllier sends out his starting XI. Although injuries should create little wiggle room for the Villa starters, there's practically no way to predict this lineup.
John Carew is meant to be healthy, but Houllier's not been impressed by the Norwegian. If Agbonlahor recovers from illness in time to be fit tomorrow, it's possible that a straight 4-4-2 could be used, with Gabby and Carew up top. It seems more likely, however, that the gaffer returns to the Ashley Young-Gabriel Agbonlahor pairing, although that leaves a question as to the wings. Last week we saw Stewart Downing on the right in place of Marc Albrighton, and although Downing didn't have the worst match, his talents are more effectively used on the left. Houllier has told us he'll be patient with Stephen Ireland, which could mean he'll have a second straight start, which is unfortunate as I think I'd rather have ten men on the pitch than Ireland giving the ball away.
If it were up to me, I'd play this stitched-together lineup, although I'm sure Houllier is much smarter and will come up with something even more bizarre: Warnock--Dunne--Collins--L Young, Downing--Clark--Pires--Bannan (yes, he can be used on the wing), A Young, Agbonlahor
For a bit of perspective on the Villa opposition, visit The Short Fuse