Aston Villa 2 Arsenal 4
The last time that Arsenal kicked off an away match at 3pm on a Saturday was at Birmingham City on March 31st. As it stands, our next chance for the staple Saturday kick off time will be away at Newcastle on February 5th, but the colossal colostomy bags at Sky have yet to do their meddling from January 31st onwards we could be made to wait longer still. When you travel to every away match, relatively short distances like Villa are something of a blessing- just near enough to London so your day is not overly lopsided. But in moving this fixture to a lunchtime kick off, the alarm was once again set for 5am, just in time for the first tube as South West London was covered in a blanket of thick frost. The coach departure was so early that the greasy spoon wasn`t even open, so I had to settle on one of those greasy American burger chain breakfasts on Holloway Road, huddling inside its garish neon lights for warmth, like a moth batting its head against a lampshade.
As we ventured to the Midlands, the carpet of frost gave way to a blanket of snow as we passed the Watford Gap, we did well to steer clear of talking about the traumas of our last two fixtures and pretty much everyone was confident of an Arsenal victory. Inside the ground, much like the first flower of spring, the sign that a chilling winter was well and truly upon us was signposted by the first Bovril of the season, purchased in a corridor next to the away seating that is so narrow, Tom Huddlestone would need to be air lifted out of it. How on earth Villa Park has a safety certificate is beyond me, in any genuine emergency evacuation procedure, we would all be utterly doomed. A collective swoon was held in the away end with the return of Robert Pires, but the atmosphere was generally eerily quiet, as it usually is for lunchtime kick offs. When people journey from their beds straight to their seats without the merciful build up of the pub, one tends to find a moribund atmosphere.
The home support was given little recourse to stir its voices either as an Arshavin inspired Arsenal kept the home side firmly rocking back on its haunches. (Arshavin completed 12 of his 15 attempted dribbles yesterday without being dispossessed). It took as little as thirty seconds for Brad Friedel to be called into action as Stephen Warnock played a loose ball on the edge of his own area, Arshavin seized upon it and played in Chamakh, but Friedel was out swiftly to smother. Villa were looking punch drunk as Arshavin again weaved inside to create mischief, stabbing a through ball to Tomas Rosicky who scuffed his shot wide when he had time and space. He is playing very well, but you get the impression he needs a goal. Villa created but one solitary opening of their own when Downing cut inside Clichy on the left and saw his cross flicked on by Carew, only for a ludicrously offside Ashley Young to sky his chance with the linesman apparently not really paying attention. But that errant attack aside, it was smooth sailing for the away side and it was almost lamentable that it took them as much as 39 minutes to take the lead. Collins and Young comically collided as Fabianski`s punt was steered out to the left, the ball was left to drift through to Arshavin who displayed the incisiveness and penetration our play had been missing as he made a beeline for goal, feinted his way past Dunne and steered his shot into the bottom corner.
The away support laid siege on the taciturn home support with a quite amusing cry of "Just like the Emirates." The team were likewise toying with their opposition, Chamakh and Arshavin played a neat one two, before Arshavin released an inch perfect through ball to Samir Nasri, who danced round Friedel but delayed his shot a millisecond too long, striking off balance and hitting the side netting. His chance against Spurs last week had been more difficult. Arshavin was once again at the hub of Villa`s dismay when he turned a clever pass to Sagna on the right, the right back clipped in an inch perfect cross to Chamakh, who rose above Collins only to be denied from close range by Friedel`s paws. But from the resulting corner, Arshavin looked up and clipped the ball to the edge of the box, where Samir Nasri was on hand to hit a sweet first time volley into the net, via the slightest of deflections from the studs of Luke Young. Arshavin`s tenth assist in all competitions this season. Half time and we all slumped back into our seats content that Arsenal never throw away this kind of lead and that we`d more than likely go on to win seven or eight nil..........
Gerard Houllier flicked through his big book of, "What the hell did Spurs do to wriggle out of this position last week" and surmised that the "take off ineffective and off pace midfielder for quick, wiry striker" recipe might be the best broth. So Pires departed and Nathan Delfouneso entered the fray. Villa erred only slightly from the recommended Redknapp recipe as they waited until the 52nd minute to put a grumbling into Gooner stomachs. Barry Bannan swung in a hopeful cross which Squillaci headed half clear, to the edge of the box where Ciaran Clark chested the ball down. Clichy momentarily thought he would try and block the shot, but instead decided, "you know, this game`s been a bit too easy and I feel it is unfair on Villa, sod it, there`s the red carpet son, fill yer boots." So Clichy politely retreated and Clark took up the invitation to shoot, curling his volley into the top corner. As he wheeled away in celebration, Squillaci gave Clichy and Rosicky, who also stood and watched this slow motion goal completely motionless, the mother of all earfuls. Meanwhile, Kieran Gibbs might well have given his manager a wee nudge down on the bench.
But the Gunners uncharacteristically moved to quell nerves just four minutes later. Arshavin started the move once again, finding Rosicky in space, the Czech looked up and pushed the ball into the path of Marouane Chamakh, who toe poked the ball under the advancing Friedel. The first murmurs of "we are top of the league" emerged from a cocky few, until a well timed, "Ssssshhhhhh!" from about 1,900 others, including me, put the people that apparently don`t watch Arsenal all that often in their places. Arsenal had chances to kill the game completely but were too busy prancing around the area in "let`s fanny about" mode. At one point, Nasri had a clear shot inside the area, but thought one more shimmy and flick was necessary before trying to pass to a heavily marked team mate. Arshavin`s goal should have been instructive to him. Clark missed from close range as Arsenal were warned, but sure enough, the dilly dallying cost us as Villa threatened to make a game of it once again. Ashley Young pulled his corner back to the edge of the box, Richard Dunne won the first looping header, as the ball sailed into the danger zone, Squillaci lost his man and Ciaran Clarke glanced the ball into the net via the underside of the bar. At this point, you could sense the nerves from the players and from the stands too. Villa subsequently created very little, but opposing teams don`t especially need to create a great deal against us to score.
For the first time I can remember, Arsene made some defensive substitutions with Gibbs and Denilson replacing Arshavin and Nasri. But Villa couldn`t make their pressure count and the Gunners broke away to seal the result in injury time. Rosicky released Chamakh in the area; he pulled the ball back to Denilson, whose shot was charged down by Collins. The rebound fell to Chamakh who controlled the ball and showed great presence of mind to lob it to the back post where Jack Wilshere was on hand to head his first Arsenal league goal into an empty net. Game over, and this time we did sing "We are top of the league" with gusto. Well, we were top until Allardici`s gross 90 minute love letter to Ferguson allowed United to easily reclaim top spot. Only Arsenal can go and win their fifth consecutive away match to go top of the table and still leave you with more questions than answers. With the exception of the 6-0 wins over Braga and Blackpool, I thought this was the poorest opposition I had seen us face this season. The game should have been well out of reach by half time and in fairness, we capitalised on just how bereft Villa were of inspiration. Yet, we still made large chunks of the second half nail chewingly tense and conceded two stupid goals to Villa`s only real chances of the game. That sense of imminent self destruction lingers even in our easiest game. Gael Clichy`s brain farts are coming more frequently and closer together than ever before and the attack is not immune, at 3-1, they elect for some kind of narcissistic goal of the season competition instead of just getting the ball in the net and getting the game finished. It seems churlish to criticise, as mentioned, our away record is superb and that was Villa`s first home defeat of the season. We played well and won by two goals. Arshavin was electric, Nasri was very good once again, Song and Wilshere had their best games in some time. Maybe there was an element of last week playing on their minds, but really, the second half should have been a comfortable stroll, Villa offered little or nothing but it was enough to get them back in the game. Still, the win was a psychological lift and hopefully, having successfully repelled the opposition when clawed back to 2-1 will help our nerves. But at the moment, I`m struggling to recall the last Arsenal game I really sat back and enjoyed.LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 7.ROSICKY(c) (20.Djourou '90+3), 8.NASRI (15.Denilson `85), 23.ARSHAVIN (28.Gibbs `85), 29.CHAMAKH. Unused; 10.v.Persie, 14.Walcott, 52.Bendtner, 53.Szczesny.