All Killer, No Filler at Villa
This was perhaps one occasion when the meddling of television was quite welcome. After a rather raucous leaving do on Friday night, the extra couple of hours in bed was rather welcome, in fact it was kind of surreal waking after nine a.m for an away match. The thick Guinness head was slayed with a well timed fry up at the Little Wonder cafe, followed by a spot of Christmas shopping at the Armoury before joining the coach for the journey North. The away fans have happily been moved at Villa Park this season, so instead of peering through the goalnets in the cramped North Stand. The view from the upper tier was a vast improvement, however, the miniscule gangways and pre historic facilities were much the same. Villa Park is one of my least favourite grounds in the country, it's a decaying monument to a bygone era which the recently revamped Doug Ellis Stand does little to hide. Quite how it has a fire safety certificate I am not sure, the gangways leaving the stands and out onto the streets can scarsely accomodate a single file exodus. God knows how they would cope with an emergency situation.
Arsenal began the match in fine fettle, Villa barely touched the ball in the first ten minutes. Aliaksandr Hleb should have given Arsenal an early lead, Mathieu Flamini sliced Villa open with a slide rule pass, but Hleb never looked comfortable as he tried to round Carson and was eventually thwarted. Much against the run of play, the Villains crept into an early lead. John Carew teased Sagna down the Villa left, his cross glanced off of Gallas' mohawk and Craig Gardner ran in unmarked to slot the home side ahead. Arsenal's response was to up their game further, Lassana Diarra and Mathieu Flamini dominated the midfield battle, whilst the likes of Hleb, Rosicky and Eboue left Villa chasing shadows. A deserved equaliser arrived in no time. Eboue tantalised Villa on the right, playing a delicious one two with Adebayor which opened Villa up, Eboue's pull back was knocked on by Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini showed an animal desire to smash the ball past Carson with his left foot. Having given the ball away in the build up to Villa's opener, it was a sumptuous retribution and another stern performance from the in form Frenchman.
Arsenal's slick football had the purists purring and the travelling fans in acid tongued mockery, 'have you ever seen England play like this?' we asked the home support. Their retort of 'Eng-er-land' (hmm, witty) was quickly shot down with a reprise of the U.S.A chanting so often aimed at United, in response to the current tenure of Randy Lerner. Sure enough, Arsenal edged in front to seal their dominance, Diarra kept the ball alive with a strong challenge and twist and turn away from Gardner, he teed up Bacary 'Banger' Sagna, who provided another pinpoint cross which Emmanuel Adebayor rose to head home. The delivery from Sagna was paradigmatic of his excellent cross for Gallas' header against Wigan. The French right back has proved to be such a sapient addition by Wenger, when right back looked pretty well covered. Messrs Hleb and Rosicky continued to run Villa ragged as an exhibition of total football rarely witnessed saw out the remainder of the half. Flamini's scorching effort rose just over Scott Carson's crossbar. The applause from the away fans were warm and self congratulatory at the interval. The difference between the two sides was clearly more than one goal.
But Martin O'Neill changed it up at half time, moving Shaun Maloney upfront and Agbonlahor onto the flank. Villa disrupted our passing game by keeping the ball in the air, aiming long for Carew and getting in and around Arsenal's midfield.The Gunners' looked a little cumbersome and Villa sensed their advantage. Only Alex Hleb was finding space between striker and midfield, he looked to be our only danger as Rosicky and Adebayor drifted out of the game. Diarra and Flamini were pushed further back and we missed Fabregas' composure. Villa went very close around ten minutes after the break, Carew received the ball back to goal, turned but screwed his finish, which Shaun Maloney latched onto and hooked agaonisingly wide from close range. Minutes later, John Carew, so often the bane of Arsenal's fortune in the past, was to cause us further damage. His cynical hack on curtailed another one of Hleb's mazy dribbles, unceremoniously removing him from the game. I had a good view of the incident and it was a very poor challenge, whether Hleb had been a 'marked man' I doubt. I find O'Neill to be a figure of integrity and diplomacy and I do not imagine for one minute that he would send his side out to do that. But Carew's lunge was desperate and deliberate, this is now the third time this season Hleb has been the victim of a poor challenge, Noble, McShane and now Carew have all been guilty of hacking the Belarussian George Best. Probably an indicator of just how hard he is to play against.
One break away part, where Adebayor misplaced a pass to Eboue that would have put the Ivorian through on goal, Arsenal's attacking prowess was muted after that. Without the link between attack and midfield, too often Almunia would hoof the ball forward only for it to come straight back. The ultimate injustice almost arrived when Carew headed Agbonlahor's cross onto the underside of the crossbar. Karmic retribution had never been quite so welcome. With Carew causing havoc, Wenger brought Gilberto on to usurp his aerial dominance. Despite some sustained pressure, Gallas and Toure held firm and Villa did not really create anything else of note. Ashley Young's dive in the box was lamentable, I suspect had he been sporting an alice band and a French surname we might be hearing more about that this morning. After some nervy moments the final whistle was greeted with high fives and howls of relief from the travelling support, I removed some rather ravaged looking fingernails from my teeth to acclaim the team with an always welcome rendition of 'we shall not be moved.' Arsenal showed two diametrically opposed, but very positive qualities. The first half was a footballing exhibition of aesthetic perfection. But when our level dropped in the second half, we dug in and showed a steely grit to get the points in a difficult away match, in difficult conditions whilst missing some key players. Of course, the national media aren't about to tell you that eleven foreign players are capable of fighting for a result away from home in howling December sleet, so they will bemoan Villa's bad luck. Meanwhile, we'll keep plugging away. Credit to Villa for their manful fight back, but a five point gap has now opened up at the top, and the gauntlet is once again thrown down. Bon faire Gunners.LD.