LONDON, December 26 – Arsenal face a stern examination of their Premier League title credentials on Sunday when in-form Aston Villa come to the Emirates Stadium.Arsene Wenger’s third placed side are currently six points adrift of leaders Chelsea with a game in hand, and sit two points behind Manchester United.
After recording impressive victories over Liverpool and Hull in their last three matches, the Gunners look to have recovered from a dispiriting 3-0 home defeat to Chelsea that saw them widely written off as also-rans.
Yet the visit of Villa will truly test their ability to compete with the best as Martin O’Neill’s side, unbeaten in eight matches, look capable of fulfiling their aspirations of a top-four finish.
Wenger said: "It is a game where we can strengthen our position in the league, so that’s why we will be completely focused."
Villa have already beaten United, Liverpool and Chelsea this season, so a victory over Wenger’s men would complete a cleansweep against the big-four.
Wenger hopes captain Cesc Fabregas can overcome a hamstring injury in time to start, while French left-back Armand Traore could also make a return to the squad after a lay-off.
But he is still without Tomas Rosicky, Gael Clichy and Nicklas Bendtner as well as long-term injury victim Robin van Persie.
With so much at stake against Villa, Wenger will depend on Andrey Arshavin to maintain his terrific form.
The Russian forward admits he has found it difficult to settle in England, but a record of 12 goals from 27 appearances so far have helped him become a star.
Arshavin said: "We have had some chances to be very close to the top but we have not taken them so I am a little disappointed.
"Now if we win games in hand we are still in the race, but at the same time we cannot lose more points."
On recent form, Villa, who have already won at Old Trafford and Anfield this term, will make the journey to London confident of repeating last season’s 2-0 triumph at the Emirates.
Stewart Downing and Ashley Young’s form on the wings, combined with the displays of James Milner since switching to a more central role, have been pivotal in Villa’s progress.
O’Neill has revealed he will utilise his squad over the festive season, though.
He said: "To go to Manchester United and win, then travel to Sunderland last midweek and win there, and then beat Stoke at home on Saturday was great because we’ve gone in with the same team and subs each time.
"I have really good faith in the players. The players want to play for a start.
"Imagine asking James Milner if he wants to rest up for Arsenal, he wouldn’t have it. The same would apply to Ashley Young or any of the players.
"But we have one or two fresh players around and this programme between now and the end of the calendar year, never mind the games we go into immediately in January, is definitely something to look at.
"It is a big period for us and I am quite sure we will utilise the players in that period."
England forward Emile Heskey is Villa’s biggest injury concern as he suffered a groin injury during a 1-0 home success over Stoke.