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
Last summer, Declan Rice's next club was the hot topic in the red half of north London. Now it's all about his late goals and whether he can propel leaders Arsenal past Aston Villa in Saturday's mouth-watering match.
There was never any doubt in manager Mikel Arteta's mind where Rice would end up, despite speculation in July.
'When I spoke to him, he often said to me from day one: 'I just want to play for Arsenal and I want to play with you', and he kept his word until the last moment and we were good enough to win the club acquire. him,” Arteta revealed on Friday.
And now the Gunners are being swept up in a tidal wave of Rice fever, with 'Rice Rice Baby' being wiped out in the Luton Town away dressing room on Tuesday night after the midfielder's 97th-minute winner. 'Dec the Halls' Christmas jumpers, decorated with the 24-year-old in a Santa hat, are flying off the shelves.
It is unclear whether Arteta has bought one, but the Spaniard is clearly impressed with his £105million midfielder.
Arsenal battled off the 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 up in a wave of rice fever
Rice scored another crucial late goal against Luton on Wednesday to secure a crucial win
“He is extremely intelligent to read situations,” Arteta said, “to break up play, to win crucial duels in certain areas of the pitch, allowing us to counter and progress in really dangerous situations.
'He gives us a look and attitude that is difficult to find in a midfielder, and he has become a key player. We have different opportunities in different games to use it in different ways in relation to what we expect from the game.”
Then there are the leadership qualities Rice brings. The club's executives are reportedly impressed with the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch, and he is well-liked by the staff.
“He's very humble,” Arteta added, “funny, very hardworking. He is extremely committed to everything he wants to do. He wants to win everything he does. He has integrated into the team in a very positive way.'
Rice has won two games for the Gunners in stoppage time this season: with a deflected volley from Bukayo Saka's corner against Manchester United, and that final header against Luton. Furthermore, his long-range strike at Chelsea helped Arsenal grab an unlikely point. Without those goals, the table would look very different.
Another goal on Saturday evening would be very welcome for Arteta as Villa – with the influential Douglas Luiz leading the charge from midfield – are unbeaten at home since a 4-2 defeat to the Gunners in February.
Rice's late goals typify Arsenal's 'never-say-die' attitude. Thirty percent of their 33 league goals this season were scored after the 75th minute. Only Liverpool, with 34 percent, plundered more late goals.
He will take on Aston Villa's Brazilian maestro Douglas Luiz at Villa Park on Saturday
Luiz is Villa's driving force in midfield and 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 crucial in protecting the backline. Arsenal boast the best defensive record in the league, having kept the most clean sheets against Newcastle (six) and conceded the fewest goals against Liverpool (14).
Center half William Saliba likes to play 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 can continue like this and avoid injuries, because we need him.”
On the title race, Saliba added: 'We have the experience from last season, of course we are better. Maybe we can go one step further. It's early to say, but we want to win every game.
'This year it will be more exciting because everyone is so close to the top and it will be more difficult to win than last season. But we are ready for that.' Arsenal certainly need to be ready for what awaits them in the Midlands.
Manchester City was dismissed dismissively on Wednesday evening by Unai Emery's spirited team, who have turned Villa Park into a fortress.
Pep Guardiola's side put in an insipid performance, but that was largely down to Villa's tenacious defense and attacking fire. All of that was put together by Luiz, who was having the time of his life. If Rice can beat the Brazilian and inspire a victory for Arsenal, the title talk in North London would really heat up.
The only problem in the Arsenal ranks is between the sticks. David Raya has made a series of mistakes since replacing Aaron Ramsdale as number 1 in September, most notably with two Luton goals in midweek.
William Saliba admitted he enjoys playing behind Rice and had high praise for him
The match at Villa Park will be personal for Unai Emery, who left the Gunners four years ago
It is understood Arteta has no reservations about continuing with Raya, despite previously suggesting his goalkeepers were interchangeable.
Emery will try to take advantage of any uncertainty and this match is obviously personal for him. Wednesday marked four years since he was sacked by the Gunners. The 52-year-old inherited a Villa side full of potential but was ranked 16th and struggled under Steven Gerrard. In just over a year, he turned them into top-four contenders.
Emery will not be in direct competition with Arteta on Saturday as his compatriot is restricted to the stands and serving a touchline ban following 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 back on edge on Saturday, there is a good chance that 'Rice Rice Baby' will echo in the Villa Park dressing rooms after the final whistle.