By Richard Clarke
Nicklas Bendtner preserved Arsenal's lead in the Premier League with a vital injury-time equaliser against Aston Villa on Saturday.
Last week, a late, late leveller had cost Arsène Wenger's side two points on a nightmare afternoon at Birmingham City. Today, the Second City's other side arrived at Emirates Stadium armed with determination and a game-plan. They were simple tools but they seemed more than enough to pull off a fine win.
Arsenal were bright enough in the opening stages but they fell behind in the 27th minute when Gabriel Agbonlahor's cross was turned in by Philippe Senderos. Shaun Maloney rattled the woodwork just before the break and, though Arsenal improved in the second half, Villa were in an indomitable mood. Scott Carson did make a couple of decent saves but Manuel Almunia was forced into far more eye-catching action.
It seemed to be an afternoon in which insult would be added to Eduardo's injury. However, in the last move of the match, Gael Clichy crossed deep to the far post, Emmanuel Adebayor nodded down and Bendtner stabbed in a crucial goal from close-range.
With Manchester United beating Fulham, Arsenal's lead is now cut to a point but, after this game, perhaps they must be grateful for small mercies.
Eight days ago, a last-gasp goal made for a draw that felt like a defeat. This one did not really feel like a victory, Arsenal had not played well enough for that.
And in the cold light of day, this performance may be given as further evidence that Wenger's men are wobbling. However, a glance at the table will tell you Arsenal are still in pole position. Albeit only by the slenderest of margins now.
Despite its bitter finale, there had been much to like about Arsenal's second-half display at St Andrews last Saturday and so Wenger stuck with that side. Obviously Eduardo was absent and the manager started to fill the void by pushing Theo Walcott, scorer of both goals at Birmingham, into the attack alongside Adebayor. The fit-again Abou Diaby returned on the left and Alex Hleb switched to the right.
Villa arrived armed with three dangerous and different attacking threats - John Carew, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor - plus a burgeoning reputation in the Premier League. Wenger said he side need a mind-focussing challenge after last week's events, some of us would have preferred a 'gimme'.
The opening minutes were all Arsenal. Whatever the rights and wrongs of last week, Wenger's men had suffered after it. Their opening attacks this afternoon made you think they were going to make two wrongs (Eduardo's injury and Birmingham's penalty) into a right.
In the seventh minute, Adebayor's flick fell to Walcott who stole a yard on his marker and fired a low shot across the face of goal. Carson threw himself to his right to palm the ball aside.
Arsenal continued to pressure but, in the 12th minute, Villa showed their renowned pace on the break. Agbonlahor went clear and raced almost half the length of the pitch until he could see the whites of Manuel Almunia's eyes. However in doing that he had not spotted William Gallas. The Arsenal captain timed his sliding challenge to perfection.
Walcott was starting to make his pace count. On a couple of occasions he burst into the area only to be crowded out by a clutch of white shirts. However Villa were still having their moments. In the 20th minute, Agbonlahor muscled off Senderos and, had his pass reached Maloney more quickly, then the Irishman would have surely given the visitors the lead - as he had when the two sides met in Birmingham exactly five months earlier.
Still, the flow of the game was still generally with Arsenal. Midway through the half, a Fabregas corner was deflected out to Senderos. However the Swiss defender hacked the ball over the bar.
And worse would follow for the 23-year-old in the 27th minute. Agbonlahor, who was becoming a growing threat, teased his marker on the left of the six-yard area and his low cross was deflected home at the near post by Senderos.
Another cruel blow in a week filled with ill-fortune for Arsenal.
Suddenly Emirates Stadium was shrouded by anxiety - and it never really lifted before the break.
Villa would have to make two changes before the whistle. Nigel Reo-Coker made way for Zat Knight and then Curtis Davies was stretchered off and Isaiah Osbourne came on.
However the changes barely seemed to affect Villa. They looked comfortable and two minutes before the break, Maloney let fly from just outside the area. His rising drive may have crept in had Almunia not fingertipped it onto the post.
In injury time, Senderos redeemed himself by clearing Wilfred Bouma's dangerous low cross. The ball flew up the other end via Walcott and Adebayor's touch gave Fabregas an opening eight yards out.
Like Arsenal's performance in the first half, his chip was nervous and hesitant. Wenger's men went into the break looking anything but title contenders.
An early response was essential. Walcott did his best by stinging Carson's hands with a rasping near-post drive after only 25 seconds. However the revival did not last. Villa turned the screw once more and in the 54th minute Arsenal were indebted to Almunia once more when he expertly turned aside a low shot from Young.
Arsenal now had to force the issue and, with that in mind, Wenger brought on Bendtner. Almost immediately the Dane nodded a Fabregas free-kick over the bar.
At least the game was now opening up but there were chances at both ends. Clichy and Hleb had long-range efforts saved by Carson. In between Agbonlahor again bulldozered through only to shoot straight at Almunia.
O'Neill brought on Marlon Harwood and the former West Ham striker gave the Villa attack more of the same. He forced a decent save out of Almunia with 15 minutes left.
Adebayor nodded over then Hleb set up Flamini to sidefoot an effort over the bar however the visitors still looked resilient.
Wenger threw on his two Brazilians - Gilberto filled in at centre back while Denilson was in his usual midfield role. And, as the game entered the final 10 minutes, Villa were now penned back while Arsenal were prowling their half in search of an opening.
They banged on the door and, though energetic, they looked spent of ideas until the final nano-seconds of injury time when Bendtner struck.
- Senderos 79
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Flamini 79
- Diaby 59
- Denilson 79
- Silva 79
- Bendtner 59 Goal!
- Davies 40
- Maloney 73
- Reo-Coker 31
- Barry Yellow Card
- Knight 31
- Osbourne 40 Yellow Card
- Harewood 73