January 30, 2015

Arsenal know they are returning to the Champions League for a 19th consecutive season, and they need a point off rock-bottom Aston Villa on Sunday at the Emirates to ensure they will directly qualify into the group stage of the European club tournament.

While the widely derided "Wenger Trophy" is once again safely with Arsenal (19-11-7) as they have secured a top-four finish for the 20th straight year, there will be no new silverware in a disappointing season at the London club. The Gunners were denied a third straight FA Cup title and made another disappointing exit in the round of 16 in the Champions League, and even that only came with a late scramble to finish runners-up in their group.

But the real cause for introspection this summer - and perhaps approval to spend money for a top centre forward and holding midfielder - will be the inability to mount a serious title push after the turning of the calendar year, especially in a season when all the perennial powers and ever-present sides of the Premier League failed to stop a runaway upstart Leicester City squad that claimed the title with two matches to spare.

"It was a very strange season in a way," goalkeeper Petr Cech told Arsenal Player. "If you look at the number of injuries we had, it is not a big number compared to previous years or compared to other clubs. It's not a big difference but unfortunately for us, every time we've had an injury, it's been long term.

"I thought we did so well most of the time to be able to cope with that, but unfortunately in the end we lacked a bit of energy in February and March when we dropped points. This is where the difference was made."

While a draw will serve Arsenal's purposes to avoid a qualifying round of Champions League play - something that takes on greater importance given the European Championship and Copa America tournaments this summer - a loss to a wretched Aston Villa squad that would also guarantee no "St. Totteringham's Day" celebrations for the first time since 1995 would only further antagonise a fan base that has divided into pro and anti-Arsene Wenger factions.

Arsenal are unbeaten in their last nine (4-5-0) following a 2-2 draw last Sunday at Manchester City in which Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez erased deficits on either side of halftime. But the Gunners need a win and a loss by Spurs at Newcastle United to claim second since Tottenham hold a superior goal differential.

For Aston Villa (3-8-26), the season has come to a merciful end as they will no longer be among the ever-present clubs of the Premier League era that started in 1992. Relegated for the first time since finishing last in the 22-team First Division in 1987, a summer of upheaval and personnel changes from board room to back room loom for the Midlands club once owner Randy Lerner and chairman Steve Hollis find a buyer for the team.

"It's a phenomenal football club with a phenomenal history, phenomenal support and phenomenal infrastructure," caretaker manager Eric Black told the club's official website. "There's a fabulous opportunity here. I'm not saying it's going to be an easy one because the Championship is difficult.

"But if the right people are in place, I see no reason why this club can't bounce back."

There are rumours of two bidders willing to meet Lerner's reported selling price of approximately £100 million - half of what he had hoped to get for the Villans after absorbing losses of an estimated £300 million since buying controlling interest of the team in 2006. One is American David Freeman, who owns the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League, and the other is a Chinese consortium that would have the potential to tap the burgeoning market in Asia.

Given Lerner's failings as Villa slid to this point over the past five seasons, it's hard to see the fan base rallying around a second American owner who shares the same non-public profile Lerner has during his time bankrolling the club.

But regardless of who becomes Aston Villa's next owner, the wooing of Nigel Pearson to become manager will likely be the first order of business given how his stock has risen with Leicester City's shocking ascent to the Premier League title after he coached many of their players in a late charge to avoid the drop in 2014-15 before his firing last summer.

Villa avoided a club-record 12th consecutive league defeat Saturday, but the winless spell did reach a dozen following their scoreless draw against now-partners in relegation Newcastle. The positive for the Villans was recording their first clean sheet in league play since their last win - a 2-0 victory over fellow-relegated Norwich City on Feb. 6 - but it was also the 17th time they failed to score in a top-flight match.

The Villans have been one of the worst offensive outfits since the 38-match era of the Premier League began in 1995. Failing to score against Arsenal would leave them on 27 goals, the fourth-lowest mark in those 20 seasons. They are also likely to become the sixth Premier League team since 1995 to fail to score three goals in any league match and the first since Birmingham City in 2010-11.

And the lowlights don't stop there. Villa are winless in their last 17 (0-3-14) on the road and are trying to avoid a club-record seventh consecutive Premier League road defeat. They have already set club records for fewest points, fewest victories, most losses, most goals allowed.

Aston Villa also need a win to avoid becoming the fourth club to finish with fewer than 20 points in a 38-match season. Sunderland did it twice (2002-03 and 2005-06) along with Derby County (2007-08) and Portsmouth (2009-10).

Arsenal have won five on the bounce over Villa in all competitions since a 3-1 home loss to open the 2013-14 campaign and have not conceded to them in 376 minutes since Christian Benteke scored in a 2-1 defeat Jan. 13, 2014.

Giroud and Aaron Ramsey had first-half goals in the reverse fixture as Arsenal cruised to a 2-0 win at Villa Park on Dec. 13.

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