Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0
The Boxing Day fixture has always been a favourite of mine. After a day of indulgence, both imbibed and masticated and no small amount of cabin fever, it represents the perfect excuse to get off your arse, out of the house and start flaunting some of that very nice clobber you got for Christmas. One of my most visible vestiges would be a red and white woolly hat hand knitted for me by a friend who happens to be an Aston Villa fan. She did not appreciate my post match assertion of "lucky hat!" As is the modus operandi for seasonal fixtures, pre match routines are broken up somewhat, with a mixture of an early kick off and the fact that I travelled to the game from my sister`s flat in Dartford meant the usual pre match pints weren`t the order of the day (even if I did sneak in a cheeky lonesome Guinness before the game). Frank McLintock was given a richly deserved round of applause on the pitch before kick off as he celebrates his 70th birthday today. But the news we had agonised over for days was available and leaving us somewhat in limbo as Cesc Fabregas was deemed fit enough for the bench.
With Chelsea again dropping points on Boxing Day, the fixture had assumed a seminal importance and that feeling of anticipation danced off the brisk December air and onto the immaculate North London turf. I had the rare pleasure of actually hearing Arsene`s pre match interview on the big screens (we usually don`t arrive into our seats until a good five seconds before kick off) and he spoke of the importance of not allowing Villa the chance to establish the pattern for the game. The conviction appeared to carry weight as Arsenal were quick out of the blocks. In the first minute, Eduardo swung a corner into the area which evaded everybody and sat invitingly for Thomas Vermaelen on the back post, but Friedel pawed his low effort away. Two minutes later, Arsenal could see the whites of Brad Friedel`s eyes once more. Denilson tucked the ball into Diaby on the edge of the area, he brilliantly turned Warnock before shifting the ball to Eduardo in the box, he pirouetted around Cuellar but hit a tame shot straight at Brad Friedel. The goal against Hull City last week does not appear to have elevated his confidence any. But from there, Villa settled into the game and lined up with numbers behind the ball, pressing and harrying and leaving Agbonlahor high up the pitch for the counter attack. Villa had a brief flurry of attacking intent towards the half hour mark, Downing found Milner`s powerful forwards run in the left channel, he cut the ball back to Agbonlahor who was snuffed out by Song, the ball broke to the internet`s most famous camera masturbator Ashley Young and his shot took a wicked deflection via the heels of the closing Alex Song and bounced just over the bar with Almunia stranded. The resulting corner saw panic and confusion reign in the Arsenal area with Almunia failing to take charge of his six yard area, the Gunners smuggled the ball half clear, until Stephen Warnock pumped another high ball into the Arsenal area, Stewart Downing cushioned it down for Carlos Cuellar who scuffed his shot badly wide. We were thankful that the opportunity fell to a centre half.
Arsenal did reassert themselves on the game again briefly. Abou Diaby looked to be Arsenal`s most potent threat, whilst Villa looked comfortable with the attempted long balls to Arshavin or the passes into his feet with his back to goal, Dunne and Cuellar were safe in the knowledge that no Arsenal players were running in behind them. Lord Lowe and I commented that the lack of mobility in Villa`s centre halves could well be their undoing, they did not look so comfortable with Diaby and Arshavin facing goal and running at them. Eduardo found Denilson from the left; he tucked the ball back to Samir Nasri on the edge of the area, but the ball just wouldn`t sit, giving Warnock time to charge down his looping volley and deflect it over the bar. Alex Song fought tooth and nail for the resulting Nasri corner, but headed just over. The first half had been a very keenly fought contest with Villa denying Arsenal space and pressing well, though they offered little in the way of attacking ambition beyond the odd long ball to Agbonlahor. For their part, Arsenal were not penetrative enough behind Villa`s backline of big and burly, yet not outstandingly pacy defenders.
Arsenal would need to establish a greater tempo in the second half and they provided just that. Not after Ashley Young was booked for yet another ridiculous dive, a curious habit for this player. I await his media crucifixion a la Eduardo in today`s press with bated breath. The Gunners, with Diaby pressing them on, began to go for the jugular. Warnock cynically pulled back Nasri as Arsenal broke away. Dunne showed dissent to a surprisingly in charge Phil Dowd by tossing the ball away in anger. Arshavin sportingly pleaded with Dowd not to book Dunne. Since Arshavin does not bear an English surname, no English media outlet will credit this. What a shame it was then when three minutes later, Villa captain Stilian Petrov ran to the referee to demand the sending off of Alex Song after a minor foul. Eduardo`s resulting free kick from the right hand side caused panic in the Villa defence and Friedel beat the delivery away. Arsenal nearly had the ball in the net two minutes later when Arshavin`s in swinging corner was nodded down by Eduardo and Gallas` attempt on the turn was smothered in the line by Friedel. Arsenal had their tails up and so did the crowd, Villa were rocking and an injury to Denilson saw Cesc Fabregas enter the fray. The stage was set and the Spanish king delivered. Fabregas gave Arsenal a greater forward impetus by pushing on beyond Arshavin and looking to cause the visitors problems in their penalty box. It was one such dribble on the edge of the Villa area that attracted three Villa defenders to Cesc before he shifted the ball right to Arshavin, he suddenly had time and space to deliver one of his trademark snapshots with little back lift, Friedel palmed it away and Dunne foiled the rebound with Eduardo poised. Arsenal were attacking with belief and intent and were looking like a force of nature. Villa were rocking.
Arshavin received the ball in the final third again, this time he had Fabregas up ahead of him on the edge of the area, Arshavin released the ball to Cesc and in his presence caused sufficient trepidation for Dunne to make the foul. Fabregas stepped up to the free kick twenty five yards from goal and he curled a beauty into the top corner to lift the roof off the stadium. Fabregas had started his run up early, giving Friedel no time to set himself. Prior to the Hull fixture last week, Arsenal hadn`t scored directly from a free kick for over two years. Those of you that reside in London will be aware of the old adage about London buses. Villa had to alter their hitherto unambitious game plan and pushed forward in search of an equaliser. A spiteful Emirates crowd, which had spent much of the game childishly urging Arsenal players to shooooooot from forty yards plus turned on Manuel Almunia when he elected to punch a Villa cross. His body language is one of a man fed up with being turned on so constantly by his own fans. The tension was palpable, everybody knew how big a victory this could turn out to be. But as Villa pushed on, Arsenal picked them off and sealed the game. Traore intercepted Milner`s poor pass before then unleashing an incredible sixty yard cross field pass to Theo Walcott, who had liberated himself from the attentions of Warnock, Fabregas careered forward into the space, Walcott delivered a sumptuously weighted pass for Cesc to run onto and steer past Brad Friedel. Our joy was slightly enervated as Fabregas grimaced and signalled to the bench that his hamstring had given out again. He was substituted to rapturous applause. He came, he saw, he conquered, he hobbled off again.
Villa nearly wrested an undeserved consolation from their only meaningful attack of the second half. Carew flicked on another Richard Dunne long ball, Agbonlahor had appeared to muscle Gallas aside, but the French defender came roaring back, impeding Agbonalhor`s shot with the underside of his studs, the ball looked to be creeping goal wards until Manuel Almunia quickly clambered to his feet and bravely thrust the ball aside with his palm with Agbonlahor closing in on the rebound. The Gunners wrapped up the result in injury time in the grand style through a very deserving goal scorer. Abou Diaby picked the ball up in the centre circle and sensed the lactic acid in Villa legs; he sauntered past three Villa players before curling an accurate low shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. It seals a great Christmas period for Diaby. Yesterday he was asked to be the foremost midfielder of the central triumvirate and was Arsenal`s biggest threat. Once Fabregas arrived onto the pitch, he was asked to sit a little deeper and did so excellently, before then being asked to move forwards once again. He performed both functions excellently. The manner of his goal was not altogether surprising; we all know his telescopic limbs are capable of jinking, slaloming runs. But what was pleasing was that he picked his moment. Ordinarily, Diaby would try to beat four players every single time he gets the ball; some times it bears fruit (sublime), whilst others it doesn`t (ridiculous). But Diaby showed something I haven`t seen from him previously- a semblance of a brain! He knew when to move forwards and when to sit back, when to hold the ball and when to release it, he played with intelligence. The turning point of Arsenal`s season might well be Arsene`s half time teacup tirade at Anfield. The turning point of Diaby`s season might well have been the sight of his manager going postal on the bench in the Spurs game, throwing down his jacket in frustration at Diaby committing forward unnecessarily.
3-0 was a monumental result and puts us straight back into the title picture. I, along with many of you, have lambasted the side for their apparent lack of mental strength, but they deserve the utmost credit for showing the resolution to pull themselves kicking and screaming back up the table. The challenge now is to maintain that hunger and consistency. Villa defended well and pressed and harried the ball, but Fabregas` willingness to run beyond a previously isolated Arshavin made all the difference. Despite some landmark victories this season, Villa played with an inferiority complex and their long ball, counter attacking game did not cut any ice. Arsenal`s midfield three of Denilson/ Fabregas, Song and Diaby asserted their physical presence and their technical game shone through. But once again, Arsenal`s biggest obstacle to glory is their injury list. Fabregas and Denilson hobbled out of the game, Song will fly to Africa today, leaving us short in midfield to add to the headache we have upfront. The miracle of the season so far is that Gallas and Vermaelen have been able to start every Premiership match and that bill of health will need to remain unblemished. The mark of Champions is to prove your credentials over and over again, Arsenal will need to continue to lay down their marker at Fratton Park on Wednesday evening.LD.
Team: 1.ALMUNIA(c), 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 30.TRAORE, 17.SONG, 15.DENILSON (4.Fabregas `57, 16.Ramsey `82), 2.DIABY, 8.NASRI, 9.EDUARDO (14.Walcott `65), 23.ARSHAVIN. Unused: 12.Vela, 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski, 27.Eboue.