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How the Super League, Smith-Rowe and status quo fuels simmering rivalry

Aston Villa host Arsenal tomorrow with the Villa Park hierarchy knowing they must halt Gunners’ Champions League charge.

IF THERE IS one football club that should be able to appreciate an opportunistic transfer bid it is Arsenal.

Almost a decade has passed – nine years this summer, believe it or not – since former manager Arsene Wenger was made aware of a £40 million release clause in Luis Suarez’s contract at Liverpool.

The Frenchman sensed this was the moment to strike.

Anfield was a much different, more vulnerable place.

Brendan Rodgers’ side had finished seventh at the end of the 2012/13 season, 12 off Arsenal in the fourth Champions League spot and 28 adrift of champions Manchester United.

That remains the last Premier League title to grace Old Trafford following the retirement of Alex Ferguson, and it proved a pivotal summer for Wenger, too.

arsenal-v-west-ham-united-premier-league-emirates-stadium Villa tried to sign Emile Smith-Rowe last summer. Source: PA

His belief that a £40m plus £1 bid would be enough to legally help prise Suarez away from Liverpool left the Fenway Sports Group – still in their early rebuilding days on Merseyside – apoplectic.

It even prompted owner John W Henry to take his grievances to Twitter: “What do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates?” he asked.

Suarez wanted to move to north London, agitated for it but eventually remained as FSG stood firm. The Premier League title slipped agonisingly from their grasp the following year as Rodgers’ side, inspired by top scorer Suarez, seemed a re-energised force.

Failure the year later saw the manager sacked, by which point Suarez was starring for Barcelona.

Jurgen Klopp has taken that progress to another level while, fast forward to the summer of 2021, and this time it was Arsenal on the receiving end of unwelcome advances for one of their prized assets.

And the identity of the suitor showed just how much the gap had shrunk between a previous top four force and one of the chasing pack who only recently emerged from the Championship.

arsenal-v-everton-premier-league-emirates-stadium Arsenal fans protest the Super League, and club owner Stan Kroenke. Source: PA

Aston Villa made three bids for Emile Smith Rowe less than 12 months ago, a reported figure of £30m ultimately getting rejected, because they believed the Arsenal academy graduate would be within their grasp, and an ideal fit to replace Jack Grealish.

His British record £100 million move to Manchester City another example of the food chain, yet their confidence in landing Smith-Rowe was an indication of the Gunners’ vulnerability under head coach Mikel Arteta.

Allied with the sense of it being a beleaguered club under owner Stan Kroenke, and with Villa’s increasing financial muscle courtesy of Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American businessman Wes Edens, Villa’s attempts to lay a glove on Arsenal showed where their ambitions lay.

The punch didn’t land, the player signing a new five-year contract and becoming instrumental in the north London resurgence.

Villa were looking up, not down, though and when progress under Dean Smith stalled before Christmas, he was swiftly replaced by Steven Gerrard, who was suitably backed in the January market and enticed Philippe Coutinho on loan from Barcelona.

Just five points separated Arsenal (8th) and Villa (11th) last season but, currently, the gap has widened to 15 with progress levels under Arteta considerable in recent months while Gerrard attempts to make his own mark.

Despite the 2-0 defeat to title-chasing Liverpool in midweek – coming on the back of five straight victories – Arsenal are in fourth and now favourites to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 2017/18.

They travel to Villa Park tomorrow facing a side with plenty of reason to dent those hopes in order to keep them from stretching the gap further, making it even more difficult to rein in a rival that previously has felt within touching distance.

Qualification for Europe’s elite club competition now would be crucial for Arsenal to provide added financial muscle, and prestige, to keep upstarts like Villa in their place just that little bit longer.

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It’s one of the reasons the club’s chief executive, Christian Purslow, was so vocal around the Super League revelations, which Kroenke’s Arsenal were a key player in last April.

premier-league-meeting Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow. Source: uciana Guerra

The fallout from that failed – but not completely neutralised – coup linger. “It would enable a small number of clubs to be in this competition come what may and, for millions of people in football, that goes against everything the sport means and stands for,” Purslow said at the time.

“The scheme is designed to take away that uncertainty, to give predictability to their businesses so that, if they’re badly managed or have a poor year, they’re still in the premier tournament. Does that sound like sport or football to you? To me it sounds a grotesque concept.”

Tomorrow will show just how close Villa are to turning a corner under a new boss, while for Arsenal it will be another test of their resolve in the post-Wenger era.
Now, if only both sets of fans had £1 for every time that they’ve heard that.

Upcoming fixtures

Tonight
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Leeds United (20.00)

Tomorrow
Aston Villa v Arsenal (12.30)

Sunday
Leicester City v Brentford (14.00)
Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United (16.30)

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