After a week away, Aston Villa's trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal is not an especially pleasant way to end a vacation. It's popular these days to view Arsenal as something of a bumbling mess, and after losing at home to Blackburn in the FA Cup a week ago being played off the pitch by Bayern Munich --who, to be fair, have a decent claim for being the best team in the world-- on Tuesday the pointing and laughing has only increased. And to be certain, this season hasn't been a very good one by the Gunners' high standards. It's looking more likely by the day that they'll miss out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 16 years, their only hope of a trophy this season was all but extinguished by Mario Mandzukic.
To be sure, this has not so far been a season that lives up to the typical high standards of the Gunners faithful, and Arsenal's struggles have led to a fair number of fans and at least one pundit to view this game as one that is very much in play for Villa. And, okay, Arsenal hasn't had its best ever week or even season, and Villa looked much improved against Everton and West Ham. But "bad for Arsenal" and "good for this Villa team" are incredibly relative. If Aston Villa were slated to take on a team with the exact same record as Arsenal and that team wasn't one of England's biggest clubs fallen on "hard" times, no one would be giving them much chance at all.
Arsenal hasn't been good enough this season to meet the standard to which they are held, it's true. But they have been good enough to amass 44 points from 26 games, outscore their opposition by 21 goals and take 24 of a possible 39 points from games played at the Emirates. Is Villa capable of beating them? Certainly. On the best of days, this Villa team has shown that they can play with anyone in England. But that doesn't make it likely, and I'm pretty skeptical that anyone that's calling for a Villa upset on Saturday would be doing so if not for the prevailing narrative surrounding Arsenal.
Still, there's very little doubt how significant a win (or depending on results elsewhere even a point) would be in terms of Villa's chances of attaining safety. Only 12 games remain in the season, and those that Villa can afford to lose are few and far between. This particular contest would almost certainly be counted among them, and if they can find a way to nick a result it would unquestionably ratchet up the pressure on Reading, Wigan, QPR and potentially even Newcastle and Southampton. And the blueprint for a successful approach is there; this team has actually had their best success against sides that play in a fashion similar to Arsenal, using a deep line, pressure in midfield and a lightning-fast counter to hurt teams such as Liverpool, Swansea City and Everton.
It isn't that a Villa win is out of the question. It's that Arsenal is a far better team, and for Villa to beat them at the Emirates would be a tremendous and important accomplishment, the surest sign yet that things are headed in the right direction. And it's important not to let the narrative be stolen in situations such as these. This is a game Villa can afford to lose, ought to be expected to lose, and are capable of winning. If they manage to pull it off, it's going to be pretty special. Don't allow the media's obsession with Arsenal's blown-out-of-proportion struggles get in the way.