Bergkamp has key to unlock Villa defence

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The Independent Online

The Arsenal manager, Bruce Rioch, will look to key signing Dennis Bergkamp to inspire Arsenal to Wembley in tonight's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final first leg against Aston Villa.

Rioch is well aware that a trophy in his first season will ease the speculation about his future at Highbury, and believes the Dutchman, released from international duty for the game, will be a crucial factor in determining its outcome.

"Every successful team needs players of instinctive ability that can turn a game," said Rioch, under whom the Gunners have won just four of their last 14 games. "They are the sort of players you need for a big cup tie like this and we hope Ian Wright and Bergkamp will produce the goods for us."

Bergkamp believes that despite scoring in his last two games he will have a tough task to break down a parsimonious Villa defence.

"They are a very strong team defensively," he said. "It will be a difficult task for us, but our win at Nottingham Forest on Saturday has put everyone in the right frame of mind to go out and perform. We are ready for the challenge."

Bergkamp has scored 11 goals in 27 games since leaving Internazionale, including three in the Coca-Cola Cup.

Rioch, too, acknowledges the importance of the match, with pressure mounting on the manager who moved to Highbury from Bolton in the closed season. "This is a vital game for both clubs, but especially for Arsenal. We have to make sure we can take a good advantage from this home leg with us when we travel to Villa Park in two weeks' time."

Arsenal, still without Tony Adams, David Platt and Ray Parlour, have also gained the release of Dutchman Glenn Helder from international duty, and are likely to field an unchanged side as they seek their third triumph in the competition.

Villa, in contrast, have an even more impressive record in the League Cup, and are chasing their fifth triumph after a run which includes just three defeats in 20 games.

However, the captain, Andy Townsend, knows Highbury presents a formidable challenge. He was sent off there last season and then endured the worst performance of Brian Little's stewardship when they lost 2-0 in this campaign.

"Our League performance in October was very disappointing but we will be in a much more positive frame this time," said Townsend, one of the three survivors of the Villa side who beat Manchester United in the 1994 final.

"A draw would be a big incentive for the second leg but that's a dangerous game to play. If things go wrong it can be hard to change tack in midstream. We haven't gone out with that approach all season but we must be solid and resolute over two legs."

Little is keeping his central defender Paul McGrath waiting, after resting him for Saturday's win at Bolton, where Steve Staunton impressed on the left-side of a lauded three-man defence. "I felt it was wise to leave Paul out on Saturday and we looked very solid at the back. I was happy with how it went," Little said.

"People kept saying I had a selection poser before the Bolton game but I never had a doubt in my mind about what I wanted to do. Paul McGrath is a great player and will continue to be so for Aston Villa. He will be in the 14 on Wednesday but I haven't decided yet whether he will play."

Little is not letting Arsenal's relatively poor form deceive. "One or two people have been knocking Arsenal and saying all is not well there, but when that happens I am more wary than ever," he said.

"I think we are going to meet an Arsenal side who are in good nick and it will be a very tough match."