When Arsenal hosts Aston Villa Saturday morning, both teams will come into the game at very tenuous spots on the Premier League table.
Arsenal is currently in fifth place, and three points would go a long way toward getting the team into the coveted top-four and automatic Champions League qualification. Meanwhile, Aston Villa comes into the game in 17th place and just a point clear of the dreaded relegation zone.
When these teams last met in November, the result was a rather lackluster scoreless draw. The stakes are much higher for each side this time around, and the game should reflect that. Let's take a closer look at this key match for both squads.
When: Saturday, Feb. 23, at 10 a.m. ET
Where: Emirates Stadium, London, England
Watch: FOX Soccer Plus
Streaming: FOX Soccer 2Go
What They're Saying
After Arsenal fell to Bayern Munich 3-1 at The Emirates on Tuesday, it appears the team will go another season without winning any hardware. Not surprisingly, that has led to renewed criticism of manager Arsene Wenger.
We've got the best man in the job to get our heads back to where they should be. I've played a lot of games in the Champions League and I know how things go.
We need to react in a positive way straight away. We can't be down in the dumps in training. Everybody needs to be alive and alert, recover well.
We've got a good run in the Premier League—we can't forget that.
We've had some good points, very important points, so we've just got to start believing again. I think that's one of the main things—believe in how good we are, because we didn't show it against Bayern.
Arsenal Player to Watch: Theo Walcott
Speaking of Walcott, he's been Arsenal's most dangerous player on the attack this year and has registered 18 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. His pace is top-notch, his ball control is excellent and his finishing has really improved.
Still, a huge part of what you should be watching for in this match is where Walcott plays on the pitch.
If he plays out wide to the right, Arsenal is simply a better team. In fact, the Gunners are at their best when Walcott and Lukas Podolski play out wide, Olivier Giroud plays up top, Santi Cazorla plays in the attacking mid position and Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta play behind him.
But when Walcott plays centrally, the team isn't as effective. Sure, Walcott is scoring goals, but he isn't as effective at holding up play as Giroud is and his pace often takes him far up the pitch, leaving a gap between he and the midfield on the counter-attack.
However, opposing defenders have been at a loss trying to handle him out wide. I know he wants to be a striker, but Walcott was born to be a right winger. Finishing in the top four of the EPL is Arsenal's last chance to salvage the season, and Walcott needs to stay out wide for the rest of the season.
Aston Villa Player to Watch: Christian Benteke
Benteke has been excellent this season and may play himself right to a new team this summer. Benteke has 15 goals and eight assists for Villa this season, and with the team just one point clear of the relegation zone, it's likely Benteke will be playing elsewhere next year.
Against an Arsenal defense that has been very shaky this season, he'll get his chances. He better take them—the Gunners are likely to dominate possession, so the opportunities may not be plentiful for Villa.
Key Matchup: Nacho Monreal vs. Charles N'Zogbia
While I don't know how the lineups will shake out for both sides Saturday, I'm assuming N'Zogbia will be on the right wing for Aston Villa and Monreal will be playing left back for the Gunners.
What an interesting matchup this will be.
When he's on his game, N'Zogbia is one of Villa's most creative and threatening presences on the pitch. Meanwhile, new signing Monreal has played just two games for Arsenal—he was cup-tied against Bayern Munich—and fans are still trying to get a feel for the new left-back.
This could be one of the most important individual matchups in this game. I know I'll be watching closely.
Arsenal is at home, looking to rebound from a tough loss and have a golden opportunity to potentially catch up to third-place Chelsea (facing Manchester City) and fourth-place Tottenham (facing West Ham). Aston Villa won't make it easy, but the Gunners will win, 2-1.
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