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Football | Barclays Premier League

Villa take aim at wounded Arsenal



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 teammate 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 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.

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