16 August 2013

MATCH PREVIEW: Arsenal vs. Aston Villa, English Premier League

Welcome back, Gooners! (Photo courtesy Dan Noctor)
One of the things we miss out on, as American fans of a team that plays most of its games in England - is what you might call the full match-day experience. Most of us never got the chance to bellow our opinions about what, in fact, Tottenham is from the North Bank, or scarf down meat pies at half-time, or rub our eyes in disbelief at seeing an impossible piece of skill from Dennis Bergkamp in the flesh.

So our thoughts, on the first home match of a new Arsenal league season, tend to be a lot less idealized and sepia-toned -- we save that kind of crap for baseball, as written by tiresome prigs like [ed. - snip! You can't say that about George Will!] -- and have more to do with waking up much, much earlier than most largely childless groups of youngish Americans do.

Yet we're looking forward to it all the same -- rushing to catch the bus that gets you down to the Back Bay by kickoff, shouting and pounding on the bar at Arsenal goals, joking nervously with the cigarette smokers at half-time because you're all so nervous about the one-goal lead and making fun of Bryce for never showing up on time.

It's fantastic. It's soccer season again.

With that, here's a look ahead to Saturday's home opener against Aston Villa.
So here's the bad news for Arsenal fans up-front: They still have Christian Benteke. The Belgian's first season at Villa was, as you may already know, pretty special, what with scoring 40 percent of the team's league goals (19) and being largely the only reason anybody talked about the Birmingham club as it muddled to a 15th-place finish.

He's one of those forwards that checks all the boxes for the modern game, combining an elegant first touch and powerful shot with strength and speed. Also, he's only 22, so he'll be worrying defenders for years to come.
Christian Benteke tortures some idiot on Fulham.
(Photo courtesy Peter Lowe)
That said, playing as well as he did for a team as uninspiring as Villa were last year ought to be evidence enough that Benteke is a wonderful player. Probably the best thing you could say about Aston Villa as a team last year is that they were consistent - the team spent much of the season hovering around the relegation places, escaping, in the end, more because of other teams finding much more inventive and exciting ways to be terrible than through any gutsy late-season push. You know, the sort of thing that was always happening to Wigan, until they won the FA Cup and also went down, which still kind of blows my mind.

Even so, Arsenal struggled in its league games against Villa last year, stuttering to a scoreless draw at a rainy Villa Park in late November, and requiring a late winner from delightful soccer-hobbit Santi Cazorla to take all three points in February at the Emirates.

What's more, their summer has been pretty encouraging -- I'm sure I'm not the only one that thought Benteke was a mortal lock to get snapped up by a wealthier club, particularly when he handed in a transfer request in July, with the Guardian reporting a £25m offer from none other than Tottenham was in the offing. (Also, where was Arsenal on this guy?)

But that was as far as it got. Benteke signed a new deal that doubled his salary to all of £40,000, great American goalkeeper Brad Guzan re-upped as well, and the club brought in a raft of young guys that I know literally nothing about but who are no doubt thought of as hot prospects. It's morning in Aston Villa.
American hero Brad Guzan is Villa's keeper.
(Photo courtesy Erik Daniel Drost)

That's not to say that Villa's vistas are entirely free of dark clouds. Here's a fun game - ask Villa fans innocently whether they think Darren Bent will go to Fulham or Crystal Palace, for what's likely to be a £5-6 million fee. Act very interested. Then, innocently, ask them how much he signed for back in 2011. (Yes, I know he's been hurt and has scored important goals for them. Still, £24 million, and he never hit double figures for them.)

Unless the wave of unknown youngsters steps in and immediately makes a big difference -- quit laughing, Arsenal fans -- this Aston Villa side is largely the same as the one that finished six points away from relegation last year, Christian Benteke and all. They conceded 69 goals last year -- more than any other team that wasn't relegated -- and with the possible exception of center-back Jores Okore, none of the new young signings look like they can materially help them defensively.

Oh, and want to know who Villa have to get goals from if Benteke goes down? Gabriel Agbonlahor. Let that sink in for a second.

So that's about the size of it -- despite one of the league's brightest young talents spearheading the attack and signs of resurgence on the horizon, Aston Villa's flaws are still on prominent display. If Giroud, Cazorla and company can keep their wits about them going forward, the goals should come, and if Benteke can be contained even slightly, it's difficult to see the visitors coming away with as much as a point. Prediction: 2-0, relatively little fuss.


(Arsenal) Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky; Podolski, Giroud, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

(Aston Villa) Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Bennett; Delph, Sylla, Westwood; Agbonlahor, Weimann, Benteke.

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