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Aston Villa confirms status as unlikely Premier League title contender, defeating Arsenal and Manchester City in same week

By Issy Ronald, CNN

(CNN) — Aston Villa’s rise under Spanish manager Unai Emery over the past year has been steady, if unspectacular: first jumping clear of the relegation fight, then reaching the Europa Conference League.

However, suddenly, this season, the team has confirmed its credentials as a genuine Premier League title contender with a 1-0 victory over Arsenal on Saturday, just three days after defeating perennial powerhouse Manchester City.

Villa scored the first and only goal of the match after just seven minutes in front of a raucous Villa Park, following yet another fast start for the Birmingham club.

Leon Bailey escaped down the wing, pulling the Arsenal defense wide, before crossing to captain John McGinn who took a touch, turned and rifled the ball into the net for a well-worked goal.

Arsenal had several opportunities to equalize, but some spectacular goalkeeping from 2023 Yashin Trophy winner Emi Martínez, a controversial decision to not award the Gunners a penalty when Gabriel Jesus went down in the box and a disallowed last-gasp goal for handball ensured that Villa held on for a club-record 15th consecutive victory at home.

After Villa defeated Manchester City on Wednesday, Pep Guardiola labeled the Birmingham side as potential title contenders, talk that Emery has been quick to play down.

Inevitably, after a week in which it has defeated two title contenders, such talk will only intensify and McGinn quipped afterwards that he is “banning the T-word.”

“It’s gameweek 16, so there’s a long way to go,” he said, according to the BBC. “We respect everyone round about us who have been in this position for years. We’re newbies – if we can keep it up, we’ll see.”

Aston Villa’s magical week has ensured it will hold onto third place in the Premier League, five points ahead of Manchester City – though the defending champion has a game in hand – a point behind Arsenal and only two points shy of league leader Liverpool.

Still, with less than half of the season played, Emery is also wary of letting expectations spiral out of control.

“I will speak again when we are in game 30, 32 and, if we are in the same position as now, then maybe I can speak about it,” he told Sky Sports afterwards.

“At the beginning, we are not a contender, it is only game 16. We are in (the top four) and we have to try to keep it. It is difficult.”

Despite its long, rich history of success – including winning the 1981/82 European Cup – Villa has not won a top-flight English title since 1980-81 and only returned to the Premier League in 2019 after enduring relegation three years previously.

When Emery was appointed in October last year, Villa was marooned towards the bottom of the league, but the four-time Europa League-winning Spanish manager has transformed the club and its players, building a well-drilled team capable of taking on the league’s best.

As Christmas and the New Year approach, anything seems possible for the Villa.

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