It's mighty Declan Rice vs super Douglas Luiz

It’s mighty Declan Rice vs super Douglas Luiz: Arsenal’s £105m man is out to nail Aston Villa’s free-scoring Brazilian midfield maestro in mouthwatering clash at Villa Park

  • Aston Villa entertain Arsenal at Villa Park on Saturday evening in a crunch clash 
  • Declan Rice is proving to be worth the £105m the Gunners splashed out on him 
  • It will do Arsenal no harm at all to have Arteta out of sight at Villa Park – It’s All Kicking Off

Last summer, Declan Rice’s next club was the hot topic in the red half of north London. Now all the talk is about his late goals and whether he can propel league leaders Arsenal past Aston Villa in Saturday’s mouthwatering clash.

There was never any doubt in manager Mikel Arteta’s mind where Rice would end up, despite the speculation in July.

‘When I spoke to him, he mentioned to me many times from day one, “I just want to play for Arsenal and I want to play with you”, and he maintained his word to the last moment and we were good enough to acquire him,’ Arteta revealed on Friday.

And now the Gunners are being swept along on a tide of Rice fever, with ‘Rice Rice Baby’ being belted out in the away changing room at Luton Town on Tuesday night after the midfielder’s 97th-minute winner. ‘Dec the Halls’ Christmas jumpers, adorned with the 24-year-old wearing a Santa hat, are flying off the shelves.

Whether Arteta has bought one is unclear but the Spaniard is clearly impressed with his £105million midfielder.

Arsenal fought off competition to secure the signing of Declan Rice for £105m in the summer

The ex-West Ham star has shone and the Gunners are being swept along on a tide of Rice fever

Rice scored another crucial late goal against Luton on Wednesday to secure a vital victory 

‘He’s extremely intelligent to read situations,’ said Arteta, ‘to break up play, to win crucial duels in certain areas of the pitch that allow us to counter and progress in really dangerous situations.

‘He gives us a presence and attitude that is very difficult to find in a holding midfielder, and he has become a key player. We have various opportunities in different games to use him in different ways in relation to what we expect from the game.’

Then there are the leadership qualities that Rice brings. The club’s executives are understood to have been impressed with the way he holds himself on and off the pitch, and he is well-liked by the staff.

‘He’s really humble,’ Arteta added, ‘funny, really hardworking. He is extremely committed in everything he wants to do. He wants to win everything that he does. He’s integrated in the team in a really positive way.’

Rice has won two matches for the Gunners in stoppage time this season: with a deflected volley from Bukayo Saka’s corner against Manchester United, and that last-gasp header against Luton. On top of that, his long-range strike at Chelsea helped Arsenal snatch an unlikely point. Without those goals, the table would look rather different.

Another goal on Saturday evening would be most welcome for Arteta because Villa — with the influential Douglas Luiz driving them on from midfield — are unbeaten at home since a 4-2 defeat in February by the Gunners.

Rice’s late goals typify Arsenal’s never-say-die attitude. Thirty per cent of their 33 league goals this season have been scored after the 75th minute. Only Liverpool, with 34 per cent, have plundered more late goals.

On Saturday at Villa Park, he will come up against Aston Villa’s Brazilian maestro Douglas Luiz

Luiz is Villa’s driving midfield force and he has scored six goals in all competitions this season

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And meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, Rice has been vital in shielding the back line. Arsenal boast the best defensive record in the league, having kept the joint-most clean-sheets with Newcastle (six) and conceded the joint-fewest goals with Liverpool (14).

Centre half William Saliba is enjoying playing behind Rice. ‘He’s a really good player,’ said the Frenchman. ‘Everyone can see it and he has helped us a lot, as you can see, and we are so happy to have him.

‘We hope he will keep going like this and avoid injury because we need him.’

On the title race, Saliba added: ‘We have the experience of last season, of course we are better. Maybe we can go one better. It’s early to say that, but we want to win every game.

‘It will be tighter this year because everyone is so close at the top and it will be harder to win it than last season. But we are ready for that.’ Arsenal certainly need to be ready for what awaits them in the Midlands.

Manchester City were brushed aside dismissively on Wednesday night by Unai Emery’s spirited side, who have turned Villa Park into a fortress.

Pep Guardiola’s team put in an insipid display, but much of that was down to Villa’s dogged defence and attacking flare. Knitting all that together was Luiz, who is having the season of his life. If Rice can trump the Brazilian and inspire an Arsenal win, the title talk in north London really would ramp up.

The only issue in the Arsenal ranks is between the sticks. David Raya has made a series of errors since replacing Aaron Ramsdale as the No 1 in September, most notably for two of Luton’s goals in midweek.

William Saliba admitted he is enjoying playing behind Rice and was full of praise for him

The clash at Villa Park will be personal for Unai Emery, who left the Gunners four years ago 

It is understood that Arteta has no doubts about continuing with Raya, despite previously suggesting his goalkeepers were interchangeable.

Emery will look to take advantage of any uncertainty and this fixture, of course, is personal for him. Wednesday marked four years since he was sacked by the Gunners. The 52-year-old inherited a Villa squad full of potential but down in 16th place and struggling under Steven Gerrard. In little more than a year, he has turned them into top-four contenders.

Emery will not be in direct competition with Arteta on Saturday because his compatriot is confined to the stands, serving a touchline ban after a third yellow card of the season — shown for leaving his technical area to celebrate Rice’s winner at Luton.

But if the midfielder is on song once again on Saturday, there is every possibility ‘Rice Rice Baby’ will reverberate around the Villa Park changing rooms after the final whistle.


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