I'm including this week's match between Aston Villa and Arsenal this week, as it's suddenly a matchup of top-three teams in the Premier League, but before I get to the match, allow me to indulge myself and write about what I saw Wednesday.
I began following Aston Villa in 2010 when I began following the sport of soccer as a fan. They finished ninth in the Premier League that season, and it was the high point of my first 12 years following the club. I saw them get relegated in 2016 and gutted out three seasons in the Championship before they achieved promotion. I was there in 2020 when they narrowly avoided being sent right back down. And I was there last season when they finished seventh and qualified for the Europa Conference League.
So I've seen a lot from Aston Villa, most of it painful. Wednesday's 1-0 win over Manchester City was the greatest match I've ever seen Villa play. I have seen plenty of City over the years, and I have never seen a Pep Guardiola City team dominated the way Villa dominated them this week. Manchester City finally found themselves on the wrong end of the beating they've given to hundreds over the years.
Aston Villa are in third place and have been great all season under Unai Emery, but I never truly bought into their chances to finish in the top four. I figured they'd compete for a European spot again, but eventually, they'd slip in the table. But Wednesday showed me that Aston Villa belongs among the best of the Premier League this year.
Those Tuesday afternoons looking for illegal streams of Villa matches against the likes of Millwall and Ipswich Town feel like a lifetime ago.
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Aston Villa vs. Arsenal
Date: Saturday, Dec. 9 | Time: 12 p.m. ET | Watch: NBC
OK, it's time to remove my fan hat and put the betting cap back on. The most misleading thing about Aston Villa's 1-0 win over Manchester City was the score. Villa should've had two or three more goals and finished the match with an expected goal total of 2.3. City only finished at 0.6 (did I mention City only had two shots), but Villa goalkeeper Emi Martinez made a couple outstanding saves the two times he was tested. That's the thing about Villa matches this season: they're high-scoring. Villa have one of the most prolific attacks in the league, but their style of play does leave them open to the counter, and while they don't give up a lot of chances, the ones they do allow tend to be high-quality.
Arsenal are a high-quality team and will likely be able to take advantage of that. There's certainly a part of me that likes the price on Arsenal to win outright and end Villa's 14-match home win streak, but the over is the safer play here. Villa have played 12 home matches this season across all competitions, and only two have finished with fewer than three goals scored. The Pick: Over 2.5 (-130)
Roma vs. Fiorentina
Date: Sunday, Dec. 10 | Time: 2:45 p.m. ET | Watch: Paramount+
This is a massive match in Serie A, as the race for the top four spots in the league looks like it'll be a tight one all season. Roma enters the weekend in fourth just ahead of Napoli on goal difference. Fiorentina are a point behind both in sixth place. If Napoli fails to beat Juventus on Friday, a win would catapult Fiorentina to fourth place. A Roma win would open an advantageous gap between them and Napoli and Fiorentina. There's a lot of season left to be played, but every little advantage is valuable, considering how many teams look to be vying for the fourth spot.
Based on what I've seen this year, I expect Roma to be the team picking up three points. Fiorentina is noticeably worse away from home, even if the results don't reflect it. Fiorentina has managed 1.43 points per match on the road, but they have an xG differential of -4.7 in seven road matches. Seven of their 10 goals scored in seven away matches came against Genoa and Napoli. They were shutout in losses to AC Milan, Lazio and Inter. Meanwhile, Roma have been terrific at home, and while they've struggled in Europe, they've played very well back home in Serie A. The Pick: Roma (+105)
Barcelona vs. Girona
Date: Sunday, Dec. 10 | Time: 3 p.m. ET | Watch: ESPN+
The unintentional theme of this week's column is "unexpected third-place teams." First, there's Aston Villa, and now, there's Barcelona! The most surprising thing about the reigning Spanish champions being in third isn't that they're in third, though, it's the team that's put them in third place. The team they're playing this weekend.
Did you know Girona are tied with Real Madrid on points in La Liga? Have you ever even heard of Girona before? Don't worry; even longtime La Liga followers don't know much about Girona. The club was founded in 1930 and spent roughly 90 years in Spain's lower leagues before reaching the top in 2017. They then spent two years in La Liga before being sent back down for three seasons and coming up again last year. Now they're in second place.
How did this happen? Well, it helps when you're owned by City Football Group, which owns Manchester City and a whole bunch of other teams around the world.
While impressive, I'm not sure Girona are ready to hang with Spain's elite for the entire season yet. Their xG differential of 8.7 ranks fifth in the league, and Girona have benefitted slightly from a more manageable schedule. While it's an interesting story, I'm not quite ready to bet on them beating Barcelona this weekend, but the price on Barcelona is a little too heavy. The smarter play is the under. The Pick: Under 3.5 (-150)
Not a lot of value out there this weekend, but I managed to scrape together this four-leg parlay paying +107.
- Inter Milan (-400)
- PSG (-450)
- Atlético Madrid (-525)
- Manchester City (-700)