BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 21: Mikel Arteta of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park on December 21, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Arsenal vs. Aston Villa
FA Cup 4th Round
Sunday, January 29, 2012, Emirates Stadium, Londonnnnnnnn
Kickoff: 11 AM EST
TV Coverage: Fox Soccer Channel
Form: Arsenal WLWLL | Villa WLWDW
SBN Aston Villa perspective: 7500 to Holte
Arsenal will welcome Aston Villa to the Emirates tomorrow for a fourth round FA Cup match. It is a competition that Arsène Wenger has taken a few times in his tenure, with four wins and another final on his CV, and he will be looking to keep working on his fifth. His side, however, are struggling in January, losing all three of their league matches and beating Leeds United in a cup match courtesy of Thierry Henry's return.
Villa, for their part, have had a very good January so far. An early blip against Swansea has faded in the wake of two wins and a draw, all coming after a massive away win at Stamford Bridge on New Year's Eve. Attackers Darren Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Marc Albrighton, and loanee Robbie Keane have discovered a rich vein of potency lately, and they will present a puzzle for Arsenal's wobbly defense.
That defense, though, may have stabilized some over the past week. Right back Bacary Sagna faces a fitness test but may be available; if he is not, Nico Yennaris is an option, as is the returned Francis Coquelin (who, of course, can also play in central midfield). Left back still is tricky, though; Thomas Vermaelen and Ignasi Miquel the options there. Johan Djourou has a hamstring issue, so it would be surprising to see him feature anywhere, but everyone else at the back is ready to go.
The question will be how strong a lineup Wenger chooses to run out, given that he has two Premier League fixtures against Bolton and Blackburn in the next eight days. Given that the players have had a week off, everyone should be fairly fresh, and the FA Cup is a chance for Arsenal to get a trophy. Wenger seems reedy to go:
Henry's contribution against Leeds was, in part, down to the absence of Robin van Persie, who was afforded time off to recharge his batteries. However Wenger suggested that his side would be virtually full-strength this time.
"I gave him a week holiday before the last FA Cup game but now we are at a moment when, for the confidence of the team, it is important we come back and win."
Indeed, strategically, it probably makes more sense to put out a stronger side for this match than it would for Bolton away on Wednesday, although that fixture has not always been easy, either. If Thierry Henry passes his fitness test, one would not be surprised to see him start on the left with van Persie in front, although starting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is an option as well, as is Andrei Arshavin or Yossi Benayoun (although Wenger has been reluctant to start the Israeli for some reason).
Wenger seemed sure that Mikel Arteta would return to the side; Arsenal have been missing his calm presence alongside Alex Song, the latter under more pressure without his holding partner the past couple of matches. If Arteta cannot go, one feels that Coquelin and Song could form a reasonable double pivot with Yennaris then at right back. (Whatever keeps Yossi Benayoun out of the center is worth trying--he's much too winsome to control things in the middle, and offers a lot on the wing). Theo Walcott is likely to start on the right, and hopefully he can rediscover his form against Stephen Warnock and James Collins.
Whatever happens, Arsenal must take control of possession early, unlike in recent weeks. They're still not really set up to defend against sustained onslaughts; the Gunners defend best through possession. If Arteta plays, this will be simpler. At the attacking end, they must find ways to break through and generate chances, another problem lately (Alex Song still leads in through balls for the club this year). For all the obvious defensive issues, the attack hasn't exactly been scintillating lately, either. However, if they can get service, Henry and van Persie, I believe, know how to finish, I think?
Predicted lineup: Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen; Song, Arteta, Ramsey; Henry, van Persie, Walcott.
Ox, Coquelin, Arshavin/Benayoun to come off the bench.
Match prediction: Villa strike first through Agbonlahor, who outpaces Mertesacker onto a knockdown. Szczesny yells at everyone he can see for the next 30 seconds. The match stays at 0 - 1 well into the second half, when the introduction of the Ox for Ramsey changes things, his drive from midfield startling Henry. Arsenal get on the front foot, Per Mertesacker scores from a corner (you heard me), and the match goes into injury time at 1 - 1. Walcott finds Henry for a late winner as a sinkhole opens up beneath Richard Dunne, who takes two stewards and five supporters with him to the Kingdom of the Mole Men, cackling maniacally the whole way down.