Arsenal must avoid yet more humiliation as Aston Villa visit

Feb 22, 2013
Jonathan Harwood

Premier League preview: crisis clubs clash at the Emirates. Bradford do battle in the Carling Cup

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AFTER the excitement of last week's FA Cup ties, it’s back to the bread and butter of the Premier League this weekend, though there is also the added bonus of the Carling Cup final on Sunday which pits Swansea against League Two minnows Bradford.

Sunday's Wembley showdown will be probably the biggest game in Bradford's history, and it won't be far off that for Swansea either. But before the first silverware of the season is decided there are some pretty crucial league matches to get through.

Possibly the most fascinating game of the weekend will take place at the Emirates where two of the Premier League's crisis clubs come face to face, as Arsenal face Aston Villa.

This will be the third consecutive home game for the Gunners and after humiliating defeats at the hands of Blackburn and Bayern Munich in the FA Cup and Champions League in the last seven days another loss would be nothing short of a disaster.

The calls for Arsene Wenger's head have been growing after the Gunners' hopes of any silverware were ended in the space of four days for an eighth successive season. Owner Stan Kroenke has assured the Frenchman that his job is safe but he needs to win back some of his credibility with the fans.

Wenger's sole focus must be getting his side into the top four in order to secure Champions League football next season, but the Gunners are currently down in fifth place, four points behind Spurs, so he cannot afford any more slip-ups.

The pressure will definitely be on come Saturday afternoon and the crowd will be edgy at best. They got behind the team against Bayern only to see their heroes outclassed by the Germans, so they will be expecting a reaction from the players and if they don't get it the atmosphere could turn toxic.

Yet Arsenal fans should spare a thought for Villa's ambitions. They are a big club with a glorious history and one which should have designs on challenging for top honours. Instead they are flirting with the unthinkable - relegation.

Paul Lambert's men lie one point above the drop zone and badly need something from this game. They will sense blood and will hope to spring an upset that could do wonders for their chances of survival and inflict a massive wound on their hosts.

Villa striker Christian Benteke, who has been linked with Arsenal, could be key. He is in a rich vein of form and has scored in his last five games. Meanwhile the Gunners' notoriously shaky defence will have to undergo more repairs as Bacary Sagna is out. Carl Jenkinson will deputise on the right while Per Mertesacker, who failed to convince against Bayern, could make way for Thomas Vermaelen at centre-back.

Another intriguing clash takes place in London on Saturday afternoon as bottom play top as QPR host Manchester United.

Poor old Rangers are not in good shape despite the best efforts of Harry Redknapp. They lie seven points adrift of Villa and safety, and the last thing they need is a visit from the champions elect, who have not lost in the league since November.

The chances of the Hoops pulling off a massive shock are pretty slim. They have not beaten United since their famous victory on New Year's Day, 1992, and last time out they lost 4-1 to Swansea.

United will be without Wayne Rooney, who is ill, but Javier Hernandez could deputise. Nani could also get a rare start after impressing against Reading in the FA Cup on Monday.

QPR will have a survival plan to keep them in the Premier League, but they surely can't expect to take anything from this game. Instead Redknapp will tell his players to enjoy the occasion and hope that they can sneak a draw.

Their only hope could be to take advantage of complacency in the United ranks now that they have a 12-point lead over City in second place.

Sunday lunchtime sees what could have been a crucial game in the title race if only Manchester City and Chelsea had managed to keep pace with Manchester United. Unfortunately both sides are enduring horrible seasons and could even find themselves struggling to stay in the top four at the end of the season.

City are second, four points above Chelsea in third, but last time out Roberto Mancini's men were humiliated by Southampton and will want to make amends for that performance by beating the Londoners at the Etihad.

Chelsea last week booked their place in the last 16 of the FA Cup with victory over local rivals Brentford. And with John Terry back they will be hoping that their leaky defence can withstand the City barrage.

Frank Lampard notched his 199th goal for the Blues on Sunday and a hat-trick against the Champions would draw him level with the club's record goalscorer Bobby Tambling on 202 goals. That is unlikely to happen but a 200th strike is not out of the question, and neither is a draw that would make United's grip on the title even stronger.

The main event on Sunday is at Wembley, where Swansea and Bradford will meet in the Carling Cup final. If it wasn't for the presence of Bradford in the final everyone would be talking about Swansea's fairytale. As it is, the Welsh club are massive favourites.

However, Bradford knocked out Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa on their way to Wembley so will not be deterred by the quality of the opposition.

Whatever happens, this final offers a refreshing alternative to the sight of two of the Premier League's big guns battling it out for a trophy that neither really wants. Both these teams are desperate for the cup and it should be a great spectacle. Who says romance is dead?

Back in the Premier League this weekend's other games see Fulham take on Stoke, Everton visit Norwich, Reading entertain Wigan in a relegation six-pointer, and West Brom play Sunderland. On Sunday Southampton head north to face Newcastle.

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