Arsenal loanee Thierry Henry does his best to stay in shape for the upcoming New York Red Bulls season. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Things are shaping up quite nicely in the FA Cup so far; only ten Premier League clubs remain in the field, and before the 5th round begins that number will be no higher than nine. Both Manchester clubs are out as are Newcastle and Swansea, two other clubs that looked more than capable of making a deep run. Spurs, Chelsea and plenty of other good top flight clubs are through, so it's far from a minnow party, but the with a lot of games left to play the odds of a non-elite team making a deep run are as good as they're going to get at such an early stage. That's excellent news, because Villa making a deep run in the FA Cup would go a long way towards making this season one on which we'll look back fondly. Unfortunately, Arsenal are one of the three elite clubs remaining in the competition.
I'm sure some of you are scoffing at my use of the word elite to describe Arsenal, but it's true. This has been a poor season by their standards, but a poor season for Arsenal still involves a trip to the knockout stages of the Champions League and a top-four finish well within reach. It's clearly been a rough go for the Gunners of late; losers of their last three league games, it took a late Thierry Henry goal to put them past a poor Leeds team into this round of the Cup. Arsenal's defense has been mediocre at very best this season, and as of late they've had trouble getting things to click in the attack. It wasn't all that long ago that Villa ran out a weakened team and arguably outplayed them; by any account, Villa were unlucky to leave that game without any points to show for it.
Without a doubt, Arsenal have been underperforming for quite some time. They had a spell of similarly uninspiring play earlier in the season. But it would be hard to make the case that Arsenal's true capabilities lie at the lower end of their performances this season. And the thing with an underperforming club is that it's really impossible to say when they'll turn it around. This could be the day Arsenal remember they're actually pretty good, and if that's the case it's going to be tough for Villa to make their way past them. Not impossible by any stretch, as Villa's performances have been quite a bit better (on the balance) over the past month or so. And the odds are just as good (at least given the information we have) that the Gunners are still in a funk and therefore vulnerable. In any case, that's not something anyone but Arsenal can control; depending on your beliefs regarding the cause of poor runs of form, perhaps not even they're in control.
What Villa can control is their own performance. They've shown on several occasions this season that they're capable of playing with any team in the league, but they've also been frustratingly inconsistent. It would probably be fair to say that Villa has moved on from one-step-forward, two-steps-back to two-steps-forward, one-step-back. But much like predicting when an underperforming team is going to snap out of it, predicting which iteration of a team that has been as up-and-down as Villa will show up is as good a guess as any. Best case scenario? The defense avoids silly errors, Villa finds some rhythm in the attack and Villa snag a win (and maybe if we're lucky a chance to beat up on Birmingham City in the next round.) Worst case? James Collins does that thing where he is absolutely terrible and Robin van Persie scores seven goals. (Alternate worst case: Alan Hutton serves as the person that reminds Andrey Arshavin he's actually a really good footballer.)
Now obviously, there are many other plausible scenarios. But the thing that makes this game different is that I see either extreme equally believable. I have no idea whether to be afraid of an absolute massacre or strangely confident that Villa will manage to get past the Gunners, perhaps with some style. This close to a match I've almost always settled on a set of expectations. This time around I quite sincerely have no idea what to expect. I've felt that a few times before, but in the past it's been when my team were the favorites; it's a much more enjoyable feeling when you're experiencing it as the underdog.
I still have a lot of issues with this team, their style of play and the prospects of Alex McLeish setting the course for the longer-term future. But those issues are far fewer in number and lessened in severity than they were this time a month ago. I suppose that's progress. But I have a real sense that a victory in this game would give me a whole lot more confidence in the way things are going. Make it past Arsenal, and Villa's chances of winning the cup are as good as anyone not named Spurs or Chelsea. Those are pretty decent odds with 16 teams left to play. But when you've become as accustomed to being disappointed by your teams as I have, glimmers of hope are mildly terrifying. It's a lot easier to stomach a missed opportunity when you never had any expectation of being able to take advantage of it in the first place.