Upon end-of-season reflection, the hectic festive period is often mused upon as to where title, promotion and relegation battles were effectively won and lost. For high-flying Aston Villa in particular, their Boxing Day clash with fifth-placed Arsenal has the makings of a season-defining one.
At the season’s genesis many pundits had Villa pegged as the team most likely to head up the ‘Little 16’; trailing in some 10-20 points adrift of the all-conquering Big Four and being bloody well delighted about it too. What wasn’t supposed to happen was that Martin O’Neill’s men would not only be nipping at the ankles of the established Premier League superpowers, but actually going toe-to-toe with them in the apparently closed four-horse race for precious Champions League places.
But, of course, there can be no losers in such a race – which makes it so blindingly dull for supporters of the clubs not involved (i.e. the majority of football fans). For a fifth club, an upstart such as Everton or Tottenham in the recent past, to enter the pursuit makes it a race so much more entertaining to behold. This season, quite clearly, Aston Villa are the greatest threat to the monotonous quadropoly; lurking, as they do, in third place with virtually half the season done.
It is to be expected that Manchester United will return, victorious, from Japan hungry to make up the ground lost on their key rivals – few doubt that the World Champions will rejoin the top three sooner rather than later. Chelsea and Liverpool may be stuttering, but still hold a significant points advantage over the chasing pack. They, too, are both involved in what promises to be a fascinating title race for the long haul.
That, of course, leaves Arsenal – still suffering from a perplexing lack of consistency – as the team most likely to accede to the rise of the charging Villans. The general perception, at least outside of their plush Bodymoor Heath training complex, has been that the Birmingham club would take fifth place and a complimentary pat on the head as reward for their exciting brand of lightning-quick attacking football. Even as recently as last month – when their side crashed consecutively at home to Middlesbrough and away at St James’ Park – most Villa fans, still basking in a re-found pride in their club under the sound stewardship of Randy Lerner, would most certainly have accepted such a fate.
Yet, of late, the tide of opinion has turned. News yesterday of inspirational Arsenal playmaker Cesc Fabregas’ enforced absence through a medial ligament injury, while greeted with the apposite sympathy, has caused that tide to swell further. For Arsenal, already feather-light in central midfield, to lose their influential captain for the bulk of the remainder of the season is – in football terms at least – nothing short of a tragedy.
Sure, the young Spanish superstar has suffered from intermittent form this term – most likely as a direct result of losing stalwart engine room colleagues Gilberto Silva and, in particular, Mathieu Flamini. But his untimely withdrawal from the Ashburton Grove stage this week has rocked the foundations of an already restless side. Authentic on-field leadership is in short supply at the Emirates Stadium, as any casual observer of ex-skipper William Gallas will testify. Arsene Wenger now has an almighty task on his hands to galvanise his remaining troops for the mid-winter slog to come.
Focussing on the positives – and there are a few – in Denilson, Diaby and co, Wenger can call upon a selection of promising midfield players that most other top-flight clubs would love to call their own; a return to first team duties of fox-in-the-box Eduardo is approaching; and, most importantly of all, the January transfer window will slide satisfyingly open in just one week’s time. To salvage the Gunners’ season Wenger must bite the bullet and invest.
In this new era of so-called economic prudence – when we, the general public, are being urged to get out on the High Street and spend, spend, spend – to maintain the wonderful results of his young Villa squad, Martin O’Neill must now do the same. His late-summer splurge aside, the name of the game to date has been slow and steady progress at Villa Park. It’s a model which has served the ex-Celtic boss well.
However – and money-man Lerner would surely agree – it’s particularly rare that such an opportunity to make a seismic breakthrough arises in the all-too static environs of the Premier League. With Manchester City and, conceivably, Spurs waiting in the wings to challenge for European spots again next season (providing neither club is relegated of course) the time to strike is now. If Villa can preserve their new-found ruthless streak and overturn a Cesc-less Arsenal on Friday, they would surge six points clear of the Gunners. Not enough to seal a magical European odyssey right there on the spot, but a significant and tangible psychological blow to Wenger’s young side.
Whatever the result, it is patently clear that Villa’s current staff is lacking in the depth of quality required to feature prominently on three fronts in the season’s second half – a cursory glance at a bench featuring Zat Knight, Marlon Harewood and a bunch of raw youth-team prospects tells that story quite plainly. To support the free-scoring ways of Gabby Agbonlahor and Ashley Young; the midfield industry of Stillian Petrov and re-focused Gareth Barry; and the defensive solidity of Martin Laursen and Brad Friedel, one or two quality reinforcements will be required – particularly in the striking department.
It should not prove a difficult sell to encourage top talent from around the globe to a club so clearly on an upward curve. Should their abundantly generous American proprietor adhere, once more, to his policy of ‘speculate to accumulate’, Villa might yet dethrone one of English football’s four reigning kings.