Arsenal vs. Aston Villa
English Premier League
Kickoff: Saturday, February 23, 3PM London/10AM Portland, Maine/7AM Portland, Oregon
Emirates Stadium, Islington, London, England, United Kingdom
League Form: Arsenal LWDWW | Villa LDLDW
Movin' Pitcher Show: Fox Soccer Plus
SBN's Aston Villa webbything: 7500 To Holte
Following Arsenal is very...rollercoastery. Except that it's a rollercoaster that doesn't really scare you so much as mildly irritate you - you can see the top of the hill, but the car you're in never quite gets there, and then it plunges down really quickly only to come back up level again, teasing you with that view of the top of the hill.
But for everyone who thinks Arsenal are IN CRISIS, or who thinks Arsenal are having a horrible season, the schedulers conveniently put Aston Villa next up on the fixture list. Perspective! There's a club that's in a bit of a mess. Last year, they hired the manager of their bitter historical rival to manage the club (what could possibly go wrong!), and he did all he could to get them relegated and alienate most of the fan base in the process, playing a dour defensive style that made Stoke look like Barcelona; Villa were a mess from back to front, and finished two points above the relegation places as a result.
This year, they brought in Paul Lambert from Norwich to clean up the mess and get Villa back to respectability; the fans were happy mostly because he wasn't Alex McLeish, but so far this season they're actually worse, with 24 points from 26 matches as opposed to 29 from 26 last season. The main reason for this is one of defense, or lack of it; last season after 26, Villa had given up 34 goals, this season they've given up 50, second-worst in the league behind Wigan's 51. Lambert experimented with a 3-5-2 formation early in the year that just didn't work with the players he had, and stuck with it too long, which put Villa in a world of bother table-wise.
They have been playing better lately - a win against West Ham last weekend got them out of the relegation places for now - but there's definitely a sense of urgency around the club right now as they desperately try to hold on to their Premier League status for another year. Villa come into Saturday's match relatively healthy - Charles N'Zogbia left Saturday's match in the 85th minute with an apparent thigh injury, but is apparently available for the match.
Replace the phrases "out of the relegation places" and "Premier League status" with "Out of two cups" and "Champions League status", and there you have Arsenal. We all know what's been going on - defensive laziness, lack of finishing - and tomorrow against Villa is as good a chance as any to set things right, and give the players some confidence ahead of next Sunday's game against That Other North London "Team".
Arsenal are also in pretty solid health, with only the apparently-want-away Bacary Sagna and the happy-to-stay Kieran Gibbs out. Nacho is not league-tied, so he should play, so I would think Arsene will field his normal, fullest-strength side in an attempt to right the good ship Arsenal. I don't like sports cliches, and I don't like lazy comparisons, but this game is a must-win for Arsenal; not just for the points, but for the spirit, competitiveness, and belief that Arsenal are lacking at the moment.
Arsenal are a good team; they may not be Manchester United good, but they're a better team than they've shown in the last couple weeks, and I hope Saturday is the first step down the road of proving that, not just to us but to themselves.
The temptation here is to say that on the back of two bad defeats, Arsenal will come roaring out of the gate and lay waste to Aston Villa in a Premier League record 11-0 rout because they're angry. But, Arsenal. So, instead, Arsenal will come out, gift Villa two early goals, and then Villa will realize that they're Villa, fold up like a cheap card table, and Arsenal will score four in the first half to take control of the game. In the second half, because they've given up, Villa will send out a celebrity XI featuring two of their most famous fans, and while Arsenal are asking for autographs and Ozzy stories, Villa fan David Cameron passes a bill outlawing Arsenal while standing in the center circle.
This is believed to be the first time a Parliamentary action has been taken from the center circle of any football pitch; asked for comment, Cameron shouts "UP THE VILLA", gives the reporter a V sign, and runs off to punt the ball into the net, singing "GLORY, GLORY DAVID CAAAAAAAAAAMERON" as he runs.
But, because he's a politician and not a professional footballer, he inadvertently puts the ball into Arsenal's net; since the Outlaw Arsenal Act of 2013 hadn't yet been ratified (it's hard to get a quorum when you're standing on the pitch), the goal counts, Arsenal lead 5-2, and that was that for the rest of the match.