Arsenal v Aston Villa, Premier League, December 27, 2009
Twenty Premier League matches over five days is an enticing prospect and Aston Villaâ€™s visit to the Emirates is on paper the most exciting of all the Christmas games. The other match that sticks out is Liverpoolâ€™s visit to Villa Park on Tuesday which just goes to show how crucial these two fixtures could be for Martin Oâ€™Neillâ€™s side.
Villa are flying right now and of all the challengers to gatecrash the â€œBig Four,â€ they are looking the side most likely to be playing Champions League football next season. December has been a great month so far, reaching the semi-finals of the Carling Cup and winning all four of their Premier League matches.
If Aston Villa were to win at the Emirates, not only would they leapfrog Arsenal in the Premier League table, but would also become the first side to beat all of the so-called â€œBig Fourâ€ since Leeds in 1994/1995.
In recent weeks James Milner has come to the fore for Martin Oâ€™Neill, in a central midfield position that has allowed Stewart Downing and Ashley Young to wreak havoc on either wing. Milnerâ€™s all action displays seem best suited to the centre where his work rate can make a major difference. (Arsenal are 7/4 to keep a clean sheet.)
Arsenal should also be wary that Villaâ€™s away form is among the best in the division and they are unlikely to be overawed after victories at Anfield and Old Trafford this season. Brad Friedel, Carlos Cuellar and Richard Dunne provide a solid base to work from and Gabriel Agbonlahor running off a big man, expected to be John Carew at Arsenal as Emile Heskey is injured, can be devastating away from home.
The Gunners will have to work hard to score and their famed attacking football will have to find a way past a defence that hasnâ€™t conceded a Premier League goal since Michael Dawson scored for Spurs at Villa Park in late November.( Aston Villa are 5/1 to keep a clean sheet.) Andrey Arshavin should start in the lone role up front for the home side and it will be a great test for the Russian playmaker against the physically strong Villa back line.
Arsenal may be level on points with their opponents, but their game in hand and the stuttering form of Chelsea and Manchester United means Arsene Wenger is refusing to give up on the title. Whilst the Gunners still seem to be somewhat brittle, they undoubtedly have the attacking players to challenge.
Captain Cesc Fabregas returns from a hamstring strain that saw the Spaniard miss the win at Hull and full backs Armand Traore and Bacary Sagna should also be included. Arsenalâ€™s form, besides their 3-0 home defeat (119/1) to Chelsea in late November, is only bettered by the Blues in 2009/2010 and if they can beat Villa and Portsmouth on Wednesday will be bang in the race for the Premier League.
These two sides also played on Boxing Day 2008 with Villa returning from 2-0 (39/1) down to gain a point in a 2-2 draw (16/1). Martin Oâ€™Neill also masterminded a 2-0 win at the Emirates last season, so although Villaâ€™s recent record against Arsenal is poor, last seasonâ€™s results should give them yet more confidence.
As we approach the halfway stage of the campaign, this is a crucial match for both sides and a score draw looks likely, which would suit Villa and all the other teams chasing a lucrative spot in the Champions League.
101gg predicts: Arsenal 1 â€“ Aston Villa 1 (7/1)
Full match odds here.