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Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: Hope springs eternal, once again

Aston Villa finished the season on a positive note and strengthened over the summer. Spirits are high-as they should be-but now the hopes and dreams of the supporters will come face-to-face with reality, and the first test will be a big one.

Jamie McDonald

After a long and eventful off-season full of new signings, a transfer saga that turned out to be anything but, and friendlies that encouraged and discouraged in equal measure, it's finally time to play meaningful games once again. And the first one is quite the doozy; Arsenal's lack of success on the summer transfer market is one of the more hilarious intriguing stories of the off-season, but despite their inability to strengthen thus far this is still a very good side.

Villa will be getting a bit of a break in the injury department, taking a mostly fully fit squad to the Emirates to face an Arsenal side that will be without a few key players. Mikel Arteta, Thomas Vermaelen, Nacho Monreal and Abou Diaby will miss out, all four of whom started in Arsenal's 2-1 win at the Emirates in February of last season. But though this is an undeniably weakened Arsenal side, it's one that still manages to pack plenty of firepower. The starting XI will likely feature all of Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshire, and no matter how much improvement Villa's defense will show this season that's a pretty terrifying group of players.

Arsenal's biggest area of weakness is at the back, and without Arteta the shield in the middle will likely be less effective than usual. That's not to say the Gunners defense is poor or even average by any stretch, but with the attacking prowess Villa bring to the game there's little doubt they'll be tested. That means this game has a great deal of potential to be a wide-open affair, and it's reasonable to think that Villa's best chance against a team like Arsenal would come in a shootout.

The key for Villa-as it likely so often will be-will be the performance of the central midfield. They're not likely to out-pass or out-possess Arsenal, but if they can avoid giveaways, seize opportunities to create counter attacks where they exist and-perhaps most importantly-manage to pressure the Gunners' midfield while still managing to protect the defense, earning a positive result would be significantly easier. Perfection isn't required, but Villa's not likely to take anything from the Emirates without a competent performance from the central three.

And to be certain, the idea of earning a positive result isn't all that far fetched. It's definitely not the most likely scenario, but with Arsenal in a relatively weakened state it makes the odds higher. Villa took the Gunners right to the wire in a narrow loss last winter, and they'll be fielding a stronger side this time around while Arsenal will be without some very important players. But while it's not crazy to see earning points in this fixture as a real possibility, it's also important not to get too down if things don't work out that way. This early in a season in which the only real objective is to show measurable improvement over a 15th placed finish, a solid performance in a losing effort away from home against a very strong Arsenal side would be encouraging. Villa's not yet to the point where the likes of the Gunners are the competition against which they should be measuring themselves. Proving that they can hang with them, however, is a sign that they're getting closer.