Arsenal head into Sunday’s FA Cup fourth round clash with Aston Villa on the back of three consecutive league defeats, but they have still been deemed the favourites by many football betting sites to emerge victorious.
Arsenal and Villa last played an FA Cup match nearly 29 years ago at the good old Highbury, where the Gunners progressed courtesy of a 2-0 win. Tomorrow’s match between these two teams will be their 10th domestic Cup meeting.
Coach Arsene Wenger’s men qualified for the fourth round by seeing off Championship outfit Leeds United in the previous round. It was the match in which their legendary striker Thierry Henry, who was making his second debut, scored the late winner after sneaking past the Whites defence from the left in his trademark style. On the other hand, Villa earned their qualification through a well-deserved 3-1 defeat of League two outfit Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Stadium.
Arsenal’s trophy drought has now stretched to almost seven years. They had a fantastic opportunity of ending that barren run in last year’s League Cup final but they squandered it and ended up losing 2-1 to Birmingham City, who were then coached by Alex McLeish, the current Aston Villa boss.
While the North Londoners are still alive in Champions League, their most realistic source of glory this season is the FA Cup, a competition from which both the Manchester giants have been knocked out. This is why defeating Villa on Sunday should be on top of their priority.
In an interview taken earlier today, Wenger emphasised on the importance of the FA Cup and pointed at his team’s excellent overall record in the competition.
The French schemer said: “I love the FA Cup, it is a top-level competition and I will always fight to win it. I won it four times and lost one final, and I don’t know how many semi-finals. I always try to win every single competition.
“If you look at my record you will see the FA Cup is important for me. I think our record is better than all of them over the past 15 years. Even last year, we went for four trophies. How many teams go for four trophies this season? Nobody.
“We always try to go for everything and for a long, long time last year we went for trophies late in the season, and still we will try to do the same and try to win the FA Cup.”
However, in the same interview, he also reiterated that a Top 4 league position matters more to him than cup glory. While he is certainly right, such an open admission right before a crucial cup tie and at a time when the fans are fuming about their team’s lack of recent success, may not be the smartest comment made by the 62-year old manager.
“I have always told you exactly the same, the priority is to be in the top four. In recent years I felt we produced always the consistency at the top, top level and it is not enough for some people maybe, but for me that is the brand of a top-level club – consistency in the top four,” Wenger said.
Midfield playmaker Mikel Arteta was absent in Arsenal’s 2-1 home defeat to Manchester United last weekend. He has now recovered and is likely to make the starting line-up against Villa.
Henry, who has been suffering from a groin strain for the past week or so, faces a late fitness test but is also likely to be passed fit.
Teenage midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked impressive against the Red Devils and he will be hoping for another start tomorrow.
All of Arsenal’s first-choice full-backs (Andre Santos, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna) are out injured, which mean that Wenger would either have to field inexperienced defenders Ignasi Miquel and Nicholas Yennaris, or play centre-backs Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen out of position.
There is more bad news for Arsenal from their treatment room, with the confirmation of news that Jack Wilshere has suffered a setback in his rehabilitation from ankle injury. He is now unlikely to be fit in February as per the original plan.
The Villans defeated Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates last year, which is why they will be confident about their chances in this tie. Darren Bent was the scorer of both their goals in that game and now that he has an experienced strike partner like Robbie Keane, McLeish’s men could prove to be even harder to handle.
Their Scottish manager is expected to play his strongest possible side and he has told his troops not to hold back at all.
“I’m not thinking of anything other than putting out my strongest team this weekend. We should be able to cope. There are three days between the Arsenal and QPR games and we have players in a good, confident mood. Arsenal are the favourites, the pressure is on them to win this game more than us but we will try to get through,” McLeish said.
There is good news for the Villa fans as their injured duo of Emile Heskey and Stephen Ireland have been declared fit, while their pace merchant Gabriel Agbonlahor (illness) is also available for selection.
But Charles N’Zogbia (heel), Carlos Cuellar (calf) and midfielder Chris Herd (ankle) haven’t travelled to London with the rest of their teammates due to their respective injury concerns.
Expected starting line-up:
Arsenal: Szczesny, Yennaris, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Miquel, Song, Ramsey, Arteta, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Van Persie
Aston Villa: Given, Hutton, Collins, Dunne, Warnock, Albrighton, Petrov, Gardner, Agbonlahor, Bent, Keane
Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa