Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Aston Villa

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, March 24
11:00 a.m. EDT, 3:00 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Phil Dowd
    • Assistants: Stuart Burt and Adam Watts
    • 4th Official: Darren Deadman
  • Reverse Fixture: Aston Villa 1 - 2 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 1 - 2 Aston Villa
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 74 Arsenal wins, 65 Aston Villa, 44 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-W
  • Aston Villa's League Form: D-L-L-D-D-W
Karma 1 - 0 These Guys.
Hey, look down for a second. You see what that is, beneath us? It's Tottenham Hotspur.

Arsenal sit above their nearest and dearest for the first time this season, though now is not the time to start gloating. Bad things happen if you start making shirts that say "mind the gap." Karma is pissing all over Spurs at the moment.

So, let's stay humble and realize that the job is not done yet. We want to be in third place after May 13. Where you are on March 23 means nothing in the grand scheme of things. There are still nine games to play.

After Arsenal beat Spurs, I wrote a piece analyzing what Arsenal had to do to secure a top four finish. I mentioned that Arsenal had to win about nine of their final 12 games, then pointed to six specific matches that had to be wins. Well, they've won three already and still have not played any of those six "should win" matches. This is the first of the six, which includes home games against Villa, Norwich, and Wigan and road trips to QPR, Wolves, and West Brom.

Of their five remaining games at the Emirates, this visit of Aston Villa is in the middle of the road in terms of difficulty. It's probably on par with the visit of Norwich in May, it's certainly trickier than Wigan's visit in April, but it's not quite the task of facing Chelsea or Manchester City.

All that said, let's look at this one game at a time, and let's go for a magnificent seven league wins in a row.

Arsenal Squad News

Tom Vermaelen waves to his adoring fans, acknowledging
that yes, he is a bad ass. Photo: Daily Mail.
Out: Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Diaby (hamstring)

Arsenal went from nine days in between matches to now playing two in the smallest interval of time you can have from midweek to weekend. A Wednesday night game followed by a Saturday afternoon game is just about as bad as it gets. It was a similar scenario when Arsenal last had a league winning streak of similar length back in November, when a tired Arsenal side could only manage a point against Fulham. Hopefully, the long layoff before the win at Everton on Wednesday means the legs will still be somewhat fresh for the Gunners as they take on Villa this week, though Villa themselves have not played a game in two weeks.

There's been no team news quite yet, so I don't think there are any new injuries from the Everton game. Elsewhere, Abou Diaby could be back in contention for a spot on the bench after completing an hour for the reserves on Tuesday. Sebastien Squillaci is back in full training, but hopefully far away from a spot in the named squad. Francis Coquelin is about a week or two away from returning from a hamstring injury. Jack Wilshere is still anybody's guess, while Per Mertesacker and Emmanuel Frimpong remain sidelined long term.

Aston Villa Squad News

Richard Dunne has been sent to Cleveland for treatment,
where he'll also play quarterback. Photo: Birm. Mail.
Out: Bent (ankle), Delph (ankle), Clark (knee), Dunne (collar)

There will be no Darren Bent for Arsenal to worry about tomorrow; the England forward will be out for a long while, after rupturing ligaments in his ankle. He's a serious doubt to make the England squad for the Euro tournament this summer. Of the four goals Aston Villa has scored at the Emirates over the past two seasons (last year in the league and earlier this year in the FA Cup,) Bent has three of them.

Villa are without two of their center backs until next month; Richard Dunne has a broken collarbone and Ciaran Clark is out with a knee injury. Dunne has been receiving treatment in Cleveland for his broken bone,. No, seriously, Cleveland. They sent him to the U.S. because American football doctors are more accustomed to dealing with this type of injury. Aston Villa and the Cleveland Browns are both owned by Randy Lerner.

Fabian Delph returned from his loan spell at Leeds, as he is out for the season with an ankle injury.

Current Form

Photo: Motifake.
If you want the Cliff's notes version of this section: Arsenal's form is great, Aston Villa's form is not that great, but they haven't played in two weeks.

Arsenal have now won six straight league fixtures for the first time in two years, when they beat Liverpool, Sunderland, Stoke, Burnley, Hull, and West Ham before drawing Birmingham. Arsenal's last seven game winning streak in the league, which they can match tomorrow, was August 25 to October 20 of 2007. The most stunning part of this six-match winning streak is that Wednesday's win was the first clean sheet of the bunch.

Overall, Arsenal have won five straight across all competitions, which matches their total longest winning streak of the year. The first two league wins of the current league streak were followed by the dreadful performances in Milan and Sunderland. At the Emirates, Arsenal have won five straight since losing to Manchester United in January. Arsenal's longest home winning streak of the season is seven.

Aston Villa have not played since beating Fulham in Birmingham on March 10. Villa were off last week, as Arsenal was, because the opponent they would have played that weekend were still playing in the FA Cup. But, in the wake of what happened to Fabrice Muamba, Villa's match with Bolton has been postponed even further. That match against Fulham was Villa's first league win since January 21. After they lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup, Villa drew QPR, lost to Newcastle, lost to United, then drew relegation candidates Wigan and Blackburn before triumphing over the Cottagers. Villa are still basically a mid-table side, but they're no longer in the hunt for a top-half finish.

Match Facts

I like pictures like this because they remind me of how
short Arshavin is. Photo: Arsenal.
Thanks to their domestic cup tie, Aston Villa will be one of four teams that Arsenal will face a total of three times this year. Arsenal have won the other two meetings. Arsenal had won their two league meetings with Sunderland before crashing out of the FA Cup at the Stadium of Light. They won their two meetings with Bolton before drawing at the Reebok on February 1. They have lost their two meetings with Manchester City so far, with their final league date on April 8.

Arsenal won the league encounter at Villa Park on December 21. Yossi Benayoun headed in the winner from a corner three minutes from time. Robin van Persie had opened the scoring from the penalty spot before Marc Albrighton equalized early in the second half. In the FA Cup on January 29, Aston Villa took a 2-0 in at halftime before Arsenal stormed back, scoring three in a span of eight minutes, to win 3-2.

Arsenal have lost just twice in their last 26 league meetings with Aston Villa, though one of those losses came in this fixture last year, 2-1, which came during Arsenal's end of season complacency clusterfuck.

The Referee

"I can't see out of these!" Photo: Bleacher Report.
The referee is Staffordshire-based Phil Dowd, a man I have not thought very highly of since that debacle at Newcastle last season. That 4-4 draw snapped a six-game winning streak across all competitions, which was Arsenal's longest streak of last season. Arsenal's winning streak right now across all competitions, as mentioned above, is at five.

Arsenal had no wins from five matches Dowd worked in the 2010/11 season and he also took charge of Arsenal's 1-0 league loss at Manchester City, a match that snapped Arsenal's league unbeaten run at eight. He did, however, take charge of an Arsenal win during that unbeaten run, the 2-1 win at Norwich, in which he correctly ignored Grant Holt's 86th minute dive for a penalty, which earned the forward a yellow card for simulation.

As for Villa, Dowd was in the middle for their 2-1 loss to West Brom (in which Chris Herd was sent off in the 35th minute) and their 2-1 win at Bolton.

Around the League

Harry Redknapp seems to be attempting to reverse the bad
hex on his squad by doing some voodoo of his own.
Photo: Daily Mail.
The biggest match of this weekend of fixtures will already be complete by the time Arsenal and Aston Villa take the pitch tomorrow. The early morning game (at 8:45 this week, since England still does not change their clocks until Saturday night/Sunday morning) will see Chelsea host Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge. For Arsenal, clearly the best possible result here would be a draw. Such a result would mean an Arsenal win moves them three points clear of Spurs and eight clear of Chelsea. But really, as long as Arsenal wins on Saturday, any result in this game gives Arsenal more breathing room against at least one of their foes.

There are six games being played in England's non-televised time slot of 3 p.m. (11:00 a.m. Eastern this week) including Arsenal v. Villa on Fox Soccer. Fox Soccer Plus will air Liverpool v. Wigan at Anfield. The Reds are now farther adrift from the top spot than they are from last place. Wigan are goal difference ahead of Wolves for that last spot. Speaking of last place Wolves, they'll be at Norwich in this time slot. The Canaries currently sit 14th. Elsewhere, Bolton Wanderers will return to the pitch for the first time since the Fabrice Muamba incident, as they will host Blackburn at the Reebok in a relegation six-pointer. Blackburn are now five points clear of the drop zone; Bolton have a game in hand. QPR used their comeback over Liverpool to climb out of the drop zone (though Bolton have that game in hand on them too;) they'll travel to the Stadium of Light to face 9th place Sunderland. The sixth and final 11:00 a.m. game sees Swansea host Everton in a battle of top-half mid-table sides.

Saturday's late game sees Stoke City, fresh off nicking a point from Spurs, host Manchester City at the Britannia. City are still one point behind United for top spot with nine matches play. United doesn't play until Monday, as they'll host Fulham at Old Trafford. There's only one match on Sunday; as West Brom hosts Newcastle at the Hawthorns.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played December 20-22, the midweek before Boxing Day.