Arsenal hosts top-four rival Aston Villa with Wenger in most ’satisfying’ period of career

LONDON — Arsenal hosts Aston Villa on Sunday with manager Arsene Wenger insistent that his current four-year spell without a trophy represents the most satisfying period of his time in the Premier League.

LONDON — Arsenal hosts Aston Villa on Sunday with manager Arsene Wenger insistent that his current four-year spell without a trophy represents the most satisfying period of his time in the Premier League.

Wenger won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups in his first nine years with Arsenal but has won nothing since the 2005 FA Cup.

With Arsenal paying for a new stadium since then, the Frenchman has overhauled his squad on a limited budget and built on youth team players — but still kept the club in the top four.

The Gunners are third in the Premier League going into Sunday’s match (Setanta Sports Canada, 8:30 a.m. ET) and victory over a team trailing them only on goal difference could provide a crucial boost to hopes of a first league title since the unbeaten 2003-04 season.

But Villa has beaten Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool already this season and is seeking to complete a sweep of victories against last season’s top-four sides.

It won 2-0 at Arsenal last season before holding the Gunners 2-2 at Villa Park.

“We’re a really good counterattacking team,” Villa defender Curtis Davies said. “That’s how we beat Arsenal at the Emirates last season.”

Davies said defensive midfielder Stiliyan Petrov could be his team’s key player against what can be a devastatingly quick Arsenal attack.

“If we hit them, they’ll come straight back at us,” Davies said. “You know how quick they can break out and how well they play. Stan’s got to be able to sit in that hole, and hopefully just slow them down a little bit so the others can get back.”

Wenger is hoping to have captain Cesc Fabregas back from the hamstring strain that forced him to miss last week’s 3-0 win over Hull, but contends that his team should not be judged on victories and titles alone.

“People forget we have been reasonably consistent and it has been the most difficult period, but as well for me, the period where I worked the best,” Wenger said. “People should respect the fact we have still made some money in every single year without the team dropping a level and maintaining a successful period in the Champions League and reasonably in the league.

“I think it was quite difficult.”

Arsenal and Villa are just two points behind defending champion Manchester United, which in turn trails leader Chelsea by four.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is responding to his side’s continuing problems in defence by rushing brothers Fabio and Rafael Da Silva back from injury for Sunday’s match at Hull (The Score, 11 a.m. ET).

Without the Brazilian pair, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown and Nemanja Vidic, United slumped to a 3-0 loss at Fulham last week. Ferguson is hoping Brown or Vidic could play, although he is certain to have them back against Wigan on Wednesday.

Ferguson is expecting Hull to play a physical game after seeing burly Fulham striker Bobby Zamora cause his team problems.

“The power and the strength of Zamora made things difficult for us and we looked fragile,” Ferguson said. “You can get away with playing midfielders at centre back once or twice, but it proved to be very difficult for us at Fulham.”

Leader Chelsea is at Birmingham on Saturday (Setanta Sports Canada, 7:45 a.m. ET) hoping for a decent result in its last match before losing Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel to the African Cup of Nations tournament.

Also Saturday, Burnley hosts Bolton, Fulham hosts Tottenham, Liverpool hosts Wolverhampton Wanderers (Setanta Sports Canada, 12:30 p.m. ET), Manchester City hosts Stoke in Roberto Mancini’s first game in charge (Setanta Sports Canada, 10 a.m. ET), Sunderland hosts Everton (Rogers Sportsnet, 10 a.m. ET), West Ham hosts Portsmouth and Wigan hosts Blackburn.

After United and Arsenal play on Sunday, there is another round of matches spread over three days.

On Monday, it’s: Blackburn vs. Sunderland, Chelsea vs. Fulham, Everton vs. Burnley, Stoke vs. Birmingham, Tottenham vs. West Ham and Wolves vs. Manchester City.

Chelsea will already have played Birmingham without the injured Nicolas Anelka before meeting local rival Fulham without Drogba and Kalou. That will leave coach Carlo Ancelotti with strikers Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini, neither of whom have scored in their debut seasons with Chelsea.

Liverpool is at Villa on Tuesday, when Hull is at Bolton. A day later, Manchester United hosts Wigan and Arsenal is at Portsmouth.

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