x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The tide is changing for Villa

Familiarity has been deemed the sincerest form of imitation. It may prove to be the surest form of irritation for Arsenal.

Martin O'Neill, left, has moulded an Aston Villa team that show many of the traits of Arsenal's classic 2004 side and now look like contenders to claim the Gunners' coveted Champions League spot.
Martin O'Neill, left, has moulded an Aston Villa team that show many of the traits of Arsenal's classic 2004 side and now look like contenders to claim the Gunners' coveted Champions League spot.

Familiarity has been deemed the sincerest form of imitation. It may prove to be the surest form of irritation on Friday night. When Arsenal visit Villa Park this evening, they will be confronted by a side featuring a striker with remarkable speed, a right-footed left winger who regularly veers infield to score, an experienced central midfielder who can control the game with assured passing and a dominant central defender.

Rewind a few seasons and such descriptions would have identified Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva and Sol Campbell. Now they apply to Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen. Having won at the Emirates Stadium and supplanted Arsenal in the top four, Villa are now on course to depose them from next season's Champions League. It is an indication of the shift in the balance of power towards the Midlanders that, with home advantage and a superior recent record, they begin as the favourites.

Indeed, their greatest concern may be Arsenal's unpredictability. A return of seven points from a potential nine against the established title challengers is proof of their ability to rouse themselves. Villa may have elevated themselves into the category of rivals. That is a consequence of the harrying job Agbonlahor performed at the Emirates. Arsenal's defensive frailties have generally been against the aerial ball, but his searing pace proved the determining factor. Youthful energy has been allied with cooler heads. Arsenal lack an equivalent of either Barry or Laursen, figures of solidity and maturity. A knee problem renders the Dane a doubt - "fingers crossed, it won't be too serious," according to Martin O'Neill - but Villa's is a settled side.

Arsenal's is not. They are minus the suspended Emmanuel Adebayor and the injured Cesc Fabregas, in addition to long-term absentees such as Eduardo, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott. The news that the captain Fabregas could be sidelined for four months leaves a creative vacuum. "We will miss him of course but we have to find a way to compensate for the fact that he will not be on the pitch," said Arsene Wenger. That is easier planned than accomplished.

Denilson's form has deteriorated and Alex Song may be at his most comfortable in defence so, Samir Nasri apart, Wenger's is a midfield with a makeshift look. They are likely to be outnumbered in the centre by the Villa trio and must ensure they are not outwitted as well. Chelsea are the only one of their immediate rivals to inflict defeat upon Villa thus far, and a fearlessness on the pitch is accompanied by an elusiveness off it.

O'Neill has the ability to avoid giving a straight answer that is one of the traits of many with a law degree. He used to deflect questions about Villa's prospects of a top-four finish by suggesting they would win the title. His current response, when asked if that is likely, is to wonder if his inquisitor has gone mad. Victory tonight would further test his evasive skills and enhance Villa's claims to be regarded as the closest current counterparts of the 2004 Arsenal side. rjolly@thenational.ae