Wenger dismisses Villa title chances

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The Independent Football

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has written off Aston Villa's Barclays Premier League title challenge - but admits Martin O'Neill's men are a genuine threat to the top four.

Villa are up to third in the table, five points behind leaders Liverpool, and their run has sparked debate over how long they can stay there after a first half of the season that included a win at the Emirates Stadium.

That still has not persuaded Wenger to believe Villa can remain within sight of the summit in the new year.

"They are mathematically in there but if you asked me if they are going to win the title I would say no because they are other teams who to me look better equipped," Wenger said. "For a place in the top four, they are a threat."

Should O'Neill do the double over Wenger when they face each other on Boxing Day, Villa will be six points ahead of Arsenal at the halfway stage of the campaign.

Wenger insists Arsenal still have title aspirations, although they appear the most likely out of the traditional top four heavyweights to make way for Villa's youngsters in the Champions League places.

The latest blow to their season came this week when skipper Cesc Fabregas was injured, ruling him out until the final month of the campaign after suffering a partial tear to his medial knee ligament. The only good news is that he will not require surgery.

The 21-year-old, who travelled to Barcelona to consult specialist doctor Ramon Cugat, told Marca: "After consulting with the best doctor possible, we've decided not to operate.

"If it would have been necessary it would have been the first thing I would have done, but the doctor recommended to me not to do it because I'm young and the meniscus is not damaged."

Without Fabregas and suspended striker Emmanuel Adebayor, Wenger's depleted side travel to Villa Park looking for revenge after Gabriel Agbonlahor helped inflict a shock result when the two teams met last month.

"It is a big game," Wenger said. "We are three points behind and have a good opportunity to come back on them. It is a very important game for us."

Among the players in the Villa ranks is midfielder Steve Sidwell, a youth product of Arsenal who moved on to Reading and Chelsea.

"He is a good all-round player," Wenger said. "He is good defending, a hard defender.

"He goes in the box well. He is a bit similar to Frank Lampard in his game. He is very positive."

Sidwell would be the type of player to solve Arsenal's current midfield problems - Gilberto Silva, Lassana Diarra, Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb have left the club in the last year and Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott are now injured - but Wenger insists he had not option but to let him go.

"I'm happy he has had a good career because we always knew he would make a career," Wenger said.

"It was difficult to assess at what level because when he was younger he had technical problems but he has improved that side of his game and is now a very good player.

"You can only play with 11, it's as simple as that. The 11 best play and at the time he was not within that. Even in the squad, it was difficult for him to get on the bench.

"At some stage, for his development, it was better for him to go and play somewhere. We don't forget - if you look at players educated here at Arsenal Football Club you will see we have produced many good players in the Premier League."

Sidwell was one of eight English players that finished the game for Villa in last week's win at West Ham - a contrast to Wenger's ranks of foreign youngsters.

The Frenchman said: "I'm a football manager, not a passport manager."