Arsenal aim to cement third spot
23 March 2012, 10:20
England - Arsenal will attempt to justify their new-found status as the favourites to finish third in the Premier League by winning at home to Aston Villa on Saturday.
Wednesday's 1-0 win at Everton enabled Arsene Wenger's side, who were 10 points adrift a few weeks ago, to climb above local rivals Tottenham Hotspur, who were held to a home draw by Stoke.
Tottenham will go back ahead if they win at Chelsea for the first time since 1990 in Saturday's early kick-off but a home victory at the Emirates Stadium, against opponents in 15th place and boasting just seven league victories all season, will restore Arsenal as the capital's leading club.
The Everton success was Arsenal's sixth in a row in the Premier League and was also their first clean sheet in that competition since early February.
Wenger had often bemoaned a lengthy injury list for earlier erratic form, which famously saw the Gunners thrashed 8-2 at Manchester United in August.
Some had accused the Frenchman of being too ready with his excuses but the return of key defenders certainly appears to be the basis for Arsenal's current hot streak.
Thomas Vermaelen, who scored the only goal at Everton, had been sorely missed and a back four featuring fit-again full-backs Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs has shown itself to be among the tightest in the Premier League in recent weeks.
Laurent Koscielny has established himself as another important cog in Arsenal's defence and now the France international has urged his teammates to maintain their momentum.
"Wednesday night was good but the most important thing is the next game against Aston Villa," he said. "If we win it is very good for us. It is very important, we are very happy but now we want to keep this place. It is important to continue to play well.
"It is not just the four defenders. All the team put in a lot of effort to help us too and we attack together too," he added. "We have to take that into the next game.
"We have had some difficult periods this season but we have some good players and a good team. In football it changes quickly and in three or four weeks we have won. We need to keep that and the most important thing is to keep in the top four."
Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong remain long-term absentees but Abou Diaby played just over an hour for the reserves against Liverpool on Tuesday as he stepped up his rehabilitation from a hamstring injury.
Alex McLeish, the Aston Villa manager, has challenged his team to extend a three-match unbeaten run despite the tough run of fixtures which now awaits the Birmingham club.
Villa have claimed five points from games against Wigan, Blackburn and Fulham and will take on Chelsea and then Liverpool after the Arsenal clash.
McLeish's side may be just two places above the pack of clubs fighting to avoid relegation but they are also just six points adrift of eighth position and the Scot believes a top-half finish is attainable.
"When you least expect it teams can take points, so why can't we?" he asked.
"Certainly we feel looking back on the season there were some wasted opportunities, but we are where we are and we must challenge ourselves to climb the table.
"That has got to be the challenge to the players – let's try and stay unbeaten for as long as we can."
Villa will be without long-term absentees Richard Dunne (collarbone), Darren Bent (ankle) and Ciaran Clark (knee), who is nearing a return to full training.
Sapa / AFP