x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Vermaelen evokes comparisons with fellow Belgian Albert

It has been more than 25 years ago and few of the nation's footballers have made an impact outside of their homeland. But that anomaly is slowly being corrected.

When Anderlecht and Club Brugge once challenged for Europe's major club prizes, Belgian football was respected and their talent in great demand. But that was more than 25 years ago and few of the nation's footballers have made an impact outside of their homeland. But that anomaly is slowly being corrected. The towering Marouane Fellaini has developed into a midfield general at Everton, Vincent Kompany's versatility has proved invaluable at Manchester City and then there is Thomas Vermaelen at Arsenal. The Belgium captain has been simply outstanding since his arrival from Ajax.

Commanding and courageous at the back and composed in attack; his finishing for six goals this season is reminiscent of Philippe Albert, who was probably the biggest Belgian success in the Premier League, spending five years with Newcastle during the Kevin Keegan era. Who could forget his audacious chip in a 5-0 rout of Manchester United in 1996? Vermaelen models his game on Fabio Cannavaro, a player of similar size, and has been nicknamed the "Verminator" by adoring Arsenal supporters. The Arsenal goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia, reveals why. "When the ball is near he is very aggressive," he said. "But he has humility and professionalism."

The combination of those characteristics are what has made him the backbone of the Arsenal defence and raised their hopes of a Premier League title. Aston Villa's pacey attack will be a test for him tonight. Villa struggled to do just that in the 2-0 defeat at the Emirates last month, but, as their top-four bid falters, their manager, Martin O'Neill, needs a different outcome at Villa Park. Aston Villa v Arsenal KO 11.45pm, Showsports 2