I cannot think of a single match that had not involved Aston Villa and yet has so steadfastly held the fanbase's rapt attention. And it's not just Villa, either. Sunderland fans will be as transfixed as their claret and blue counterparts. At 1945 GMT, Arsenal and Wigan Athletic will take the pitch at the Emirates in London to potentially determine Aston Villa and Sunderland's status as Premier League clubs. True, Aston Villa cannot be sent down by the result of the match. Nor can Sunderland. But an Arsenal win or draw will assure Aston Villa of safety. Sunderland are safe with a Wigan loss, and safe in all but a purely mathematical sense with a Wigan draw. With so much riding on the midweek tilt, I thought it might be useful to preview the match.
Arsenal come into the match on a tremendous run of form that has seen them unbeaten since a 2-1 loss at Tottenham on March 3. That was one of only three losses the club has suffered in the EPL in the calendar year. As a result, the squad that began the season looking shaky by their lofty standards now sits in 5th, with a game in hand. Since Tottenham won on Sunday, Arsenal will be looking to get a win to claim the final Champions League spot up for grabs. Doing so would put them one point up on Spurs with an away clash at Newcastle to end the season. It's fair to say that in their current form, Arsenal are one of the best clubs in England and would be a hard match for anyone.
Wigan have obviously been a bit more down than Arsenal. They need two wins to close out the season in order to remain as members of the Premier League. That's their only option. A loss or a draw in either match means they'll spend next year in the Championship. I'm really intrigued to see what style of play they'll adopt. In Saturday's FA Cup final - a massive highlight in a poor season for the club - Wigan rode out a defensively minded match to eventual victory. There, they could afford the luxury of playing a war of attrition. If they enter the second half today even with Arsenal, one would think they will have to start playing desperate, throwing everything forward. While that has a chance of working, Arsenal are the second stingiest team in the league, allowing only 36 goals this season. And of course, that all-out style of play will leave Wigan - who aren't know for their defense, having conceded 67 goals - open to the counter. We also have to remember that Wigan are playing on short rest, after the aforementioned Cup final on Saturday.
So the odds are stacked against the visitors. However, if Wigan somehow miraculously take the lead, you can expect to see them park every single player in the box and defend like mad. It's hard for me to envision this match ending in a draw. Either a desperate Wigan will score, or they'll give up two or three in their attempt to do so. To me, the latter seems more likely.
For the neutrals out there, I know the prospect of Wigan making another miraculous late-season push to stay in the top-flight is tempting. It is, admittedly, a great storyline. But ask yourselves: do you really want another year of Dave Whelan in the Premiership? The blowhard owner of a small always-on-the-fringes-of-massive-failure club who thinks that he'll be able to keep his manager because teams like Everton simply aren't big enough? Whelan is genuinely one of the most deplorable people in football, and the Premier League would be better off without him. Let that sway your rooting interests.
But remember, if you're an Aston Villa fan, all you want is for Arsenal to draw or win. Sunderland fans? You're the same. Today, we're all Gunners. Up the Arsenal, or whatever it is you people say. Let's make sure that Sunday is a totally meaningless day for Aston Villa.