Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2
Firstly, my apologies for producing the match report some 24 hours later than I had intended. A concoction of having arrived home at 3.3.0am Thursday morning, a day at work thereafter and other duties, I hadn`t had the opportunity. Nevertheless, due to a good tip from a good friend, we were able to secure cheap train tickets for the journey to the Midlands, with the prospect of first class and the free food and drink that yields on the way home.
Me being the conscientious type, opted to represent my five-a-side team on Wednesday lunchtime. My companions for the journey decided to spend their early afternoon in the pub. It was clear upon meeting at Euston station that I had some catching up to do. Fortunately, our good mate "Sweden", festively decked out in Santa attire, had brought a couple of bottles. One Captain Morgan one Jack Daniels to be precise. Needless to say, by the time we reached Birmingham New Street, vocal chords were well exercised.
A few more liquid liveners for the vocal chords were expunged in the Witton Arms and we were ready for the ground. The support was in fine voice but the game began in a rather disjointed manner. Arsene sprung a surprise by electing to play Coquelin at right back, with Vermaelen shunted over to the left. With Alex Song suspended, Frimpong came into the midfield. The lack of familiarity made itself plain in the opening exchanges, with the Gunners struggling to hold possession. It also rather suggests the manager hasn`t got a preferred option to fill the shortfall of full backs at this point.
Coquelin`s rawness in the position was exposed after just 6 minutes when Charles N`Zogbia made easy work of him down the left and sent a cross to the back post, which Agbonlahor headed goalwards, only to see Wojciech Szczesny paw the ball away. In fairness to Coquelin, he settled in the second half having reacclimatised to a position he had not played for 2 years. But half way through the half, the Gunners were presented with an opening with their first dangerous attack. Walcott and Gervinho briefly swapped flanks. This left Walcott to tear into the Villa area, only to see himself hauled back by Ciaran Clark. It was only the Gunners` second penalty of the season- the first obtained in identical circumstances when Jonny Evans tugged Theo back at Old Trafford.
But whereas van Persie squandered that penalty; he made no mistake this time, slamming the spot kick into the roof of the net. Guzan was then left to beat out Walcott`s effort from the right. Whilst Aaron Ramsey really ought to have made it 2-0 when Gervinho and van Persie combined to put him clear on goal; but with Dunne closing in, Ramsey hacked wide. His finishing is an area that could do with some touching up, I feel. Villa`s irritating potato faced manager made a change prior to half time to try and stem the tide. Barry Bannan came on for Stephen Ireland and immediately curled a free kick into the side netting. But a slender one goal advantage took us into the break. Yet you had the feeling Arsenal had another gear or two to find.
But they struggled to search it out in the second half as the home side tried to up their own tempo. It may be a coincidental statistical quirk, but the Gunners conceded in the exact same minute as they had at Eastlands on Sunday. Hutton pumped a hopeful ball to Agbonlahor, who flicked it on. Vermaelen, who looked somewhat uncomfortable all evening with yet another positional change, flicked the ball unwittingly past Mertesacker, allowing Marc Albrighton to nip in and slot the ball between Szczesny`s legs for the Premier League`s 20,000th goal. But the key on this occasion compared with Sunday revolved around the quality of the substitutions. Whereas the off colour Chamakh and Arshavin were ushered in to rescue the result in Manchester, Wenger switched Frimpong for the alertness and directness of Rosicky, with Arteta moving in front of the defence.
Arsenal became instantly more dynamic with Rosicky`s probing. The away side forced a succession of corners. You feel Arsenal should be more effective from set pieces, with van Persie and Arteta able in the delivery department and a few six footers in the side. Villa had conceded eight goals from set pieces prior to the engagement with us. From one van Persie corner, Mertesacker was able to redirect a knockdown goalwards, but Guzan was equal to it. Arshavin and Benayoun were sent for. Arsenal produced 3 subs aged between 30-32, which is a key difference compared to a couple of years ago.
One of those changes hit pay dirt on 87 minutes. Yossi Benayoun, great player and professional that he is; is hardly the most likely source for a headed goal from a corner. But experienced players are able to read in game situations and react accordingly. Having won a flurry of corners, Yossi probably realised it was as decent an avenue as any for a goal. So when van Persie`s delivery was once again true and Villa suffered a trademark lapse in concentration, he was in the right place to exploit it, heading home from close range. His name was sung long and loud into the night sky and he deserved it too. You have to feel he is ahead of Arshavin in the pecking order now and will have more of a say in the first team over the congested Christmas schedule.
Villa were dumbstruck and Arsenal don`t give the same impression of fragility nowadays, so the game was pretty much over as a result. Save for two pieces of stupidity from Alan Hutton. First he waded into the back of van Persie`s neck with an elbow, earning him a yellow card that could easily have been a straight red. Then in his visceral anger, he chopped Vermaelen in half just a minute later, earning himself a well deserved red card. Given past misdemeanours we can say Alan Hutton is certainly that type of player and following his mystifying defence of the player, McLeish is very much that type of manager.
Having already blamed the laws of gravity for his eye watering assault on Shane Long a few weeks ago; along with his pithy remarks about the Eduardo incident, McLeish might do better to adopt Wenger`s infamous "I didn`t see it" line if he is looking to defend his player publicly. As it is, he just comes off sounding like an apologist and a first class git. As it was, the Gunners secured a precious three points that they probably didn`t deserve. It was a victory of graft over class, a symptom of the newly professional and experienced look to the squad. The likes of Arteta, Benayoun, Rosicky, Mertesacker as well as the returns of van Persie and Vermaelen have given us a more resolute look. Sometimes, that kind of spirit carries you through. It certainly did at Villa Park. For our part, the drinks were flowing on the first class carriage home, even if our performance wasn`t flowing, nor was it the vintage that adorned some of our drinks labels.
13.SZCZESNY, 39.COQUELIN, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 26.FRIMPONG (7.Rosicky `66), 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY (30.Benayoun `81), 14.WALCOTT, 27.GERVINHO (23.Arshavin `81), 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 1.Almunia, 15.Chamberlain, 18.Squillaci, 29.Chamakh.
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