The last few weeks or so have been a (relatively) fun time to be an Aston Villa fan. Between the signings of Scott Sinclair and Carles Gil (not to mention the flashes of brilliance shown by the latter in his two appearances,) the re-signing of Fabian Delph, a decisive win over Bournemouth in the FA Cup, Paul Lambert speaking frankly about the limitations he's had to work with, and some very positive noises emanating from the boardroom, spirits are as high as they've been all season. Given all of that, it's easy to forget that Villa are winless in the league since December 7th-a stretch of 7 games-and have seen what once seemed like a comfortable cushion between themselves and the relegation zone all but vanish. Positive mood or no, the timing of Villa's trip to the Emirates is far from ideal.
After a rocky stretch in the fall the Gunners are rolling as of late, winning 4 of their last 5 and finding themselves just outside the Champions League places. This is an Arsenal team that spanked Villa 3-0 in Birmingham back in September-when Villa were actually playing pretty decent football-and they've only gotten better since then. That Villa are headed in the right direction and happier days are on the horizon is not mutually exclusive of the fact that they're nowhere near the team Arsenal is, but avoiding a heavy defeat would certainly go a long way towards lending credence to the former point.
For that to happen, Villa need to do what they did against Liverpool in their last Premier League game without the uncharacteristic mistakes that doomed them in the defensive phase and the wastefulness in front of goal that's been a hallmark of the team this season. Villa's defense has been greatly improved this season, and though much of that has been due to the emergence of Jores Okore as a special talent and genuine steps forward by Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker, a not-insignificant share of the credit must go to the central midfield. Villa won't be able to win the possession game against Arsenal, but that doesn't mean they need to make any drastic changes from what they've been doing; if they can shield the back line and keep the ball when they have it, they'll give the side a fighting chance. But if the Gunners overrun Villa in the middle of the park, it's going to be a very long day.
Goals are certainly the biggest concern going forward, and rightfully so; if Villa had managed to score at a clip equal to Hull City, the Premier League's next-lowest scoring side, they'd have a goal difference of -5 and likely be firmly ensconced in the comfort of mid-table anonymity. But there's reason to expect things to turn around on that front, as the current level of futility just isn't sustainable given the number of chances the team has created and the additions of Gil and Sinclair certainly can't hurt things. The goals are going to come, and if the midfield and defense can continue turning out quality performances after they do we could be in for a pretty entertaining finish to the season.
In that sense, Arsenal are a big test. The Gunners can score, and they've shown that they're capable of turning even the best midfield into a non-factor. This is the team-give or take the return of some injured players and the slim chance of another addition before the close of the transfer window-that Villa will have the rest of the year. Arsenal isn't the caliber of team Villa have to beat out to avoid the drop, but if they can hang with them it's much easier to feel good about their chances of doing so.