Whisper it quietly, but Aston Villa could disrupt the hierarchy in the English Premier League this season.
The former European champion is third in the table after it defeated Manchester City 1-0 on Thursday morning to move to 32 points from 15 matches, with only Arsenal (36) and Liverpool (34) ahead.
City is fourth on 30 points and winless in its last four EPL matches for the first time in six-and-a-half years.
The defeat came two days after its manager, Pep Guardiola, declared City would become the first English team to win four consecutive league titles, following victories in 2021, 2022, and this year.
Guardiola’s bravado came after he criticised pundits Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, and Micah Richards, who were left unimpressed with City following the 3-3 draw with Tottenham at the weekend.
City looked anything but champion material at Villa Park as its rivals had 22 shots – the joint-most any Guardiola team has faced in his 535 games as a manager.
Villa’s 13 first half attempts are also the most faced by a Guardiola side in a single half.
In contrast, City only had two shots, but none after the 11th minute. Villa even stopped City from winning a corner, the first time that City has failed to get one in a match under Guardiola.
Remarkably, the win was Villa manager Unai Emery’s first over Guardiola in 14 attempts, but how his team did so suggests his boys are on the right track to finish in the top four.
Villa qualified for the new UEFA Europa Conference League, where it has already qualified for the next stage with a match to spare.
So, why is the Midlands team hard to beat this season? One reason is that it has the best offside trap in the EPL. In 15 league games this season, nine teams – including City – were caught offside five times or more in a match.
In World Cup winner Emiliano Martinez, Villa has a fearless and steady goalkeeper.
Emery also recruited wisely in the summer with free transfer Youri Tielemans, sparking the team to greater heights.
The former Leicester midfielder has gelled effortlessly with Boubacar Kamara, Douglas Luiz, and John McGinn to give Villa a solid midfield from which to launch attacks.
Emery, Arsenal’s coach for 18 months in 2018-2019, faces his former side on Sunday (1.30am), knowing he has the tools to unlock the Gunners’ defence.
A Villa victory would not be a surprise.
Crystal Palace vs Liverpool (8.30pm)
Wolves vs Nottingham Forest (11pm)
Brighton vs Burnley (11pm)
Sheffield United vs Brentford (11pm)
Manchester United vs Bournemouth (11pm)
Aston Villa vs Arsenal (1.30am)
Luton vs Manchester City (10pm)
Fulham vs West Ham (10pm)
Everton vs Chelsea (10pm)
Tottenham vs Newcastle (12.30am)