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Arsenal seek revenge, top spot at Villa
Thinking back to the last time Arsenal played Aston Villa, on the first day of this campaign, it is not really overstating things to suggest the atmosphere around the London club was mutinous. Rebellion crackled in the air. Hostility coursed down from the stands towards the pitch - the scene of a match which left Arsenal looking scarred and extremely vulnerable.
Villa's players cavorted in celebration of a surprise 3-1 victory, merrily lobbing their shirts into the visiting crowd. The soundtrack behind them was dissonant, as Arsenal's irate fans yelled in a less than polite manner for the powers that be to spend some money before it was too late. Just goes to show, one game doth not a season make.
Several months down the line Villa are dejected, that early season promise having disappeared like mist in the morning sun. Arsenal, in contrast, have enjoyed the kind of renaissance that means a win in the return game on Monday will take them back to the top of the table. Manchester City and Chelsea remain the obvious choices to win the Premier League, but Arsenal have so far stuck to the pace-setting task with a fortitude that seemed unimaginable when they lost that opening day of the season game to Villa.
Arsene Wenger smiles wryly when it is put to him that the majority view still cannot see past City or Chelsea coming through. “They are the favorites from everybody's specialist eyes," he says. The mildly sarcastic emphasis on the word "specialist" shows how much he cares for such a view. "We are here to deny that. Nobody gave us any points. We have earned them. We just have to keep a strong belief and I am sure we can do it. We need to continue to develop as a team because you could see against Tottenham [a convincing win last time out] that this team is still growing."
That is an interesting point. There is one fundamental area where Arsenal must grow more obviously than two Premier League big hitters who are favorites to last the course. They have proved they have the qualities to sustain a title challenge, but they lack the experience of what is needed to turn promise into prizes. The majority of Manchester City's players are only too aware of the ways they will be challenged in the weeks ahead. Chelsea are hardly short of players who have multiple medals on their resume.
Wenger is proud of the character his team have shown in responding to the setbacks that have tripped them up this season, to bounce back quickly. He is quietly hopeful that the willpower in the group will grow over a second half of the season where the tasks become infinitely more pressurized. A sequence in February takes in matches against Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Then there is a run of games in March that looks even more daunting: Bayern away, Tottenham away, Chelsea away and then Manchester City at home.
Naturally there are calls to spend to bolster the squad, just as there were after that early season shambles. But this time that comes from a position of optimism and aspiration. Mesut Özil's arrival had a transforming effect, and a signing with clout would be a huge booster over January.
But Wenger is obliged to stress that while they are looking, they are not dependent on summoning another transfer miracle. He has a backup plan that comes from within. A number of key players have been absent recently, and he feels the breaks have allowed them to recharge. Olivier Giroud is coming back from a two-week absence and will be, Wenger reckons, "refreshed." Özil has not started a game since before Christmas, so has benefitted from an unofficial winter break. Aaron Ramsey, so vital in the early charge to the campaign, has missed four matches.
The Villa game also represents another chance for those coming back from long-term injuries to show what they can offer. Wenger suggested that Lukas Podolski is the best finisher at the club if he finds his sharpness, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is raring to go having played no football since the opening day of the season.
Will it be enough? For the next few games, which Arsenal are confident of ticking off successfully, it should be. But for the stretch from now until May? That will tell us how much this team have really grown.
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