BIRMINGHAM, January 26 – Arsenal sit the first part of a four-match exam which will can decide the fate of their Premier League title bid when they travel to Aston Villa on Wednesday night.
A remarkable upturn in form and fortunes has seen the Gunners over-turn the 11-point advantage Chelsea enjoyed over them at the end of November when Carlo Ancelotti’s team, at that time the clear leaders, won 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium.
Indeed, Arsene Wenger’s side clambered to the summit last week via a controversial 4-2 victory over Bolton Wanderers, although Manchester United have since reclaimed top spot.
A win at Villa Park would lift Arsenal back to the top and provide Wenger’s young squad with the perfect confidence boost ahead of Sunday’s clash with United at the Emirates, as well as the encounters with Chelsea and Liverpool that follow over the next month.
While those four matches look set to define Arsenal’s season, Villa have ambitions of their own which are not restricted to winning the League Cup, in which they booked a final spot by over-powering Blackburn Rovers in the semi-finals.
Martin O’Neill’s side are one of four clubs intent on finishing fourth at the end of the season and therefore earning the right to try for Champions League qualification. Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool are the other three, although Villa’s neighbours Birmingham City are not out of the equation either.
Wenger rested key men for Sunday’s FA Cup tie at Stoke City, which saw the Potters win 3-1. The Frenchman was not too despondent as he regarded the knock-out competition as the lowest of his remaining priorities and will be certain to field his strongest side at Villa Park.
Wenger was unrepentant about ringing the changes at Stoke, which included handing a second debut to Sol Campbell, who had rejoined the side the previous week.
"I do not regret my team selection because I did not have much choice," he said. "Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen and Gael Clichy could not play and I think Sol Campbell had a good game overall.
"If you look at our schedule you cannot always play with the same XI, that is for sure. If I rotate and we don’t win it is my fault so I can only stand up and say that is the team I picked. We have ten injuries and we are going into a period where we cannot rotate a lot in the big games."
Defender Stephen Warnock is an injury worry for Villa, having been forced off after 50 minutes against Brighton in the FA Cup on Saturday.
"Warnock’s been sore for a little while," said O’Neill. "He wanted to go again, but he has played a lot of games for us.
"Ideally, I wouldn’t have minded him not playing but Nicky Shorey is on loan at Nottingham Forest and even if we had have got him back, he would have missed it because he was sent off last week.
"So we’ll have a look at things. Warnock will try and rest up for a day or two and we’ll see how he is for Wednesday. He’s got a shin injury, he doesn’t remember getting hit on it, but the doctor seems to think he probably has at one stage or another and it’s really irking him.
"Warnock is a great lad, he really is. He would play when a lot of other players wouldn’t risk it as much."
Striker John Carew could return after a knee injury and defender Curtis Davies, who is wanted by Celtic, is back from a shoulder injury that has kept him out since November.