Struggling Aston Villa travel to the Emirates Stadium.
Arsene Wenger has endured one of the worst weeks of his career as Arsenal manager and it could get worse if his side fail to beat struggling Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Wenger has come in for strong personal criticism after back-to-back home defeats by Blackburn Rovers and Bayern Munich all but ended the Gunners’ hopes of winning a trophy this season.
The FA Cup exit to Championship side Blackburn was embarrassing enough, but the gulf in quality between Wenger’s side and Bayern as the German club established a 3-1 first-leg lead in their Champions League tie has been held up as evidence of how far Arsenal have fallen behind Europe’s best teams.
Stan Kroenke, the US-based majority shareholder, was in London for the Bayern game and attended a board meeting 48 hours after the loss.
Wenger’s future was not expected to have been on the agenda, confirming the hierarchy’s continuing support for the manager.
But the growing discontent among the club’s fans that has been audible in recent weeks, and in particular at the final whistle of the Blackburn game, will grow if Arsenal fail to beat Villa and step up their challenge for fourth place.
Wenger’s team currently lie fifth, four points behind Tottenham Hotspur, who face West Ham United 48 hours later.
Senior players including Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott have voiced their support for the manager in the wake of the Bayern defeat.
“We’ve got the best man in the job to get our heads back to where they should be,” said Walcott.
“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.”
Right-back Bacary Sagna has been ruled out of the visit of Villa after picking up a knee injury against Bayern, while left-back Kieran Gibbs is still out.
Gabriel Agbonlahor has raised the stakes ahead of the weekend game by claiming Villa team-mate Christian Benteke should aim “even higher” than Arsenal for his next move.
Benteke, 22, is in demand after an impressive first campaign in England in which he has already scored 15 goals.
Both Arsenal and north London rivals Tottenham, as well as Manchester City and Chelsea, have been linked with summer moves for the Belgium international, but Villa manager Paul Lambert says the forward is now worth over double the £8 million ($12.2 million, 9.3 million euros) they paid Genk to sign him.
Agbonlahor said: “Christian is one of the players of the season for me so far. He’s going to get linked with the top clubs, especially because of his age.
“He’s young, he’s gifted in what he can do, so he’s going to be linked with a lot of clubs. I think he’s good enough for even higher than them (Arsenal and Tottenham).
“He’s showed that by the way he plays, with his composure for a big guy, and he has quite a bit of pace as well. There are many aspects of his game that are at the top level.”
Agbonlahor, though, insists Villa can keep hold of Benteke, who signed a four-year deal last August.
He added: “He’s still learning his trade here and enjoying his football, so hopefully he stays here.”
Charles N’Zogbia is expected to shake off a knee injury to take his place in the side, while Agbonlahor and Karim El Ahmadi have recovered from the illnesses that ruled them out of the 2-1 victory over West Ham last time out.
Venue Emirates Stadium, Saturday 3pm
Last season Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0
Referee Martin Atkinson
This season’s matches 19 Y74, R1, 3.95 cards per game
Subs from Mannone, Martínez, Gnabry, Yennaris, Squillaci, Koscielny, Miquel, Diaby, Ramsey, Coquelin, Rosicky, Gervinho, Ox-Chamberlain, Arshavin
Injured Fabianski (ankle, 3 Mar), Gibbs (thigh, 9 Mar), Sagna (knee, 9 Mar)
Form guide WWDWLL
Disciplinary record Y26 R3
Leading scorer Walcott 11
Subs from Given, Ireland, El Ahmadi, Holman, Sylla, Bowery, Dawkins, Bannan, Bennett, Stevens, Lichaj, Johnson, Burke
Injured Herd (foot, 4 Mar), Albrighton (foot, Apr), Gardner (knee, Aug), Dunne (groin, unknown), Petrov (leukaemia, unknown)
Form guide WDLDLD
Disciplinary record Y55 R2
Leading scorer Benteke 11
Arsenal have lost only two of their last 28 league meetings with Aston Villa (W17, D9, L2).
Villa have twice won at Arsenal in their last four league trips. However, they are the Gunners’ only home defeats in this fixture in the last 26 meetings.
Arsenal have lost their last two matches at home in all competitions. They last lost three successive home matches in 2002.
The Gunners are unbeaten in their last 13 league matches played in the month of February since a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea in 2010.
They would be top of the league if only the second half of matches counted. Seventeen of their last 21 league goals have been scored after the interval.
Arsene Wenger’s side have dropped just four points from winning positions – a record bettered only by Swansea.
There have been a league-high 51 goals at the Emirates Stadium this season (an average of 3.9 per game).
Theo Walcott has equalled his highest tally of assists in a single Premier League season (eight – the same as 2011-12). He has already scored a career-high seasonal tally in all competitions (18) and in the Premier League (11).
Aston Villa ended an eight-match winless streak with victory over West Ham last time out.
They have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 10 league matches, conceding 27 goals during that period.
Paul Lambert’s side have only gained two points from losing positions – the worst record in the division.
Seventy percent of the league goals they have conceded (35 of 50) have come in the second half of matches.
Christian Benteke has scored in each of Villa’s last four Premier League matches, equalling the club record previously set by Dion Dublin (2003) and Gabriel Agbonlahor (2008 & 2009).
Villa’s next three fixtures after this one are Manchester City (h), Reading (a) and QPR (h).
Arsenal to win 5-0 at 25/1: Arsenal vs Aston Villa Betting