Aston Villa and Arsenal have struck up something approaching a rivalry this season. Not that their pair of Premier League encounters were particularly testy. (Villa did, however, take four points from their meetings and beat the Gunners 2-0 at Emirates Stadium in November.) No, this enmity has nothing to do with head-to-head contention and everything to do with the race for fourth spot in the standings and qualification for next season’s Champions’ League.
If recent weeks are any indication, it’s a race that neither club seems interested in winning. If Everton had been in a better position when they embarked on their current streak, they might well have claimed a place in the top-four for themselves. As it stands, they are eight points adrift of Villa and can do no better than fifth this term.
And so it comes down to Villa and Arsenal. Youthful, English backbone versus stylish, cosmopolitan flair. Pity they don’t face each other down the stretch.
So which side has the advantage? With just 11 rounds to play, do Villa have the upper hand because they are currently six points superior in the table? Or does Arsenal’s quality and depth come through in the final stretch?
A side-by-side statistical analysis would have been nice in answering these questions. But when one of the clubs goes four straight matches without scoring a goal, such an examination seems not only foolish, but unnecessary.
Following are the top five reasons why Arsenal will not crack the top-four this season and qualify for the Champions’ League.
5. Congestion: They haven’t caught cold; they’ve just gone cold. And given that they have three matches in the next eight days and five in the next 18, Arsenal’s depth will be pushed to the limit. Villa, on the other hand, play just three matches in March—a saving grace for Martin O’Neill’s small squad.
4. Signings: No Premier League club required more of a January upgrade than Arsenal. With injuries having decimated his squad, Arsene Wenger should have signed at least one midfielder and one striker. What did he get? A whining, self-centered forward without any experience in English football.
3. Injuries: Arsenal have been absolutely battered by injuries. Each of Robin van Persie, Emanuel Adebayor, Theo Walcott, Abu Diabi, Eduardo and Cesc Fabregas have spent significant time in the therapist’s room this season.
2. Scoring: Or lack thereof. There’s only so much blame you can put on injuries and fitness concerns. Arsenal have scored just five goals in 2009 and have notched more than a single goal in a match just twice since November. Even when healthy, Adebayor is a wasteful finisher, and if Nicklas Bendtner was half as good as he thought he was, the Gunners wouldn’t be in this predicament. Samir Nasri has not been nearly as good as Wenger thought he’d be, and even van Persie tends to go missing for weeks at a time.
1. Arsene Wenger: Facts are facts. And that fact is that Arsenal have finished an average of 15 points behind the league leaders in the past four seasons. They’ll probably trail by 20 when all is said and done this term. Unfortunately for Gunners fans, that’s become the new norm at Wenger’s Arsenal. His much vaunted youth policy has failed to yield more than a handful of useful players, and his record in the transfer market has been abysmal for half a decade. If the club’s supporters are looking for someone to blame for another disappointing season, their glances should begin and end with the manager.