By Richard Clarke
If the Premier League title is won on tough nights against tough opponents and in tough conditions then perhaps Saturday's 2-1 victory at Aston Villa is the clearest indication that Arsenal can sustain their challenge until May.
Arsène Wenger's side had surrendered their 28-game unbeaten run on Tuesday in Spain. But they remain unbeaten in domestic football since April 7 and they showed the fortitude of champions to overcome an ebullient Villa side in a blood-and-thunder encounter on a rain-swept night in Birmingham.
The home side took the lead in the 14th minute when Craig Gardner slotted in from close range after John Carew's cross had deflected into his path. But Arsenal's reposte was swift and decisive. Mathieu Flamini thundered home the equaliser from the edge of the area in the 24th minute and then Emmanuel Adebayor powered in a header just after the half-hour.
Villa will argue they deserved a point. They certainly dominated the second half but the closest they came was when Carew's header crashed against the bar with Almunia beaten.
This crucial victory sent Arsenal five points clear at the top of the Premier League but Manchester United are widely expected to reduced that to three on Monday.
However given that Wenger's sides have sometimes struggled to regain their form when a long unbeaten run ends, this will count as another question-mark emphatically answered.
It was perhaps the most satisfying win of the season.
Gael Clichy (thigh) and Alex Hleb (hamstring) had faced fitness tests on the morning of the game. Both passed. However Cesc Fabregas was absent have failed a similar examination on Friday.
William Gallas, Adebayor, Bacary Sagna, Lassana Diarra and the fit-again Flamini were restored to the starting line-up. Denilson, Justin Hoyte, Armand Traore, Gilberto, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo dropped out from the side that had lost in Spain.
Villa Park was cold and expectant before kick-off. There was the feeling this could be a pivotal game. For the first time in six months Arsenal were coming off the back of a defeat while the home side had taken a notable scalp in midweek by winning 4-0 at high-flying Blackburn.
The first half began at a breezy, buoyant pace and did not relent until the break. Arsenal were into their stride quickly and their passing was crisp. During one move early on, they retained possession and pressure for several minutes before Eboue tested Scott Carson with a low drive.
Ashley Young hacked a shot over Manuel Almunia's bar then Hleb roared through only to impede Rosicky as the Czech midfielder let fly after Adebayor's backheel.
Despite that, the Belarus international was having a fine game. After 10 minutes he scuttled through the middle only to be buffeted wide by the shoulder of Wilfred Bouma and then dispossessed by the sliding foot of Scott Carson.
In the 12th minute a weak clearance fell to Gardner but he hacked over. The England Under-21 international would make amends shortly afterwards.
Flamini gave away the ball in midfield to Carew, who raced clear on the left and reached the byline. His cross bounced off the underside of Kolo Toure's foot then reared up awkwardly at the near-post. William Gallas attempted to head clear but only managed to divert the ball to Gardner at the far post. The young midfielder gleefully slid home his shot from close-range.
In a month of 'tests' for Arsenal, this was turning out to be one of the sternest. But their response was vibrant.
In the 20th minute, Sagna stormed into the area as the Villa defence backed away and Rosicky's drive was deflected wide. It was a testament to the pressure Arsenal were creating and, as it turned out, the equaliser was only four minutes away.
Eboue played a wonderful one-two with Sagna on the right and fired the ball across the face of goal. The stumbling Rosicky could only touch it on to the onrushing Flamini who released a rocket of a shot to beat Carson from the edge of the area. It was an emphatic way to draw level and the goal certainly sucked some the life out of Villa.
Meanwhile, Arsenal kicked-on.
Almost immediately, Hleb found Flamini in space just inside the area and the Frenchman appeared to have ample time to convert from 12 yards. But from nowhere Olof Mellberg stretched out a leg from to deflect the ball wide.
Eboue was having a wonderful game. On the half hour, his incisive low cross was steered into the hands of Carson by Rosicky. Six minutes later, Arsenal stole the lead.
Hleb won an important challenge with Gareth Barry on the right and poked the ball to Sagna. His outswinging cross was met by a thunderous header from Adebayor. It was a classic English centre forward's finish.
Two Flamini efforts - one over the bar, one blocked - sandwiched the goal. On the whistle Diarra tested Carson once again. It had been a wonderful, stirring first half by Wenger's men.
Villa threw everything at Arsenal after the restart. The closest they came early on was in the 55th minute when Carew's turn fooled Toure in a crowded area and Martin Laursen fired a swivelling shot against the outside of the post. The home side were now going 'route one' and, naturally, beanpole Norwegian would to heavily involved.
The Villa striker got a booked for a poor foul on Hleb. He did not recover and Theo Walcott came on. A couple of minutes later Carew nearly added equaliser to injury when he nodded Young's cross against the bar with Almunia nowhere.
The Villa siege continued with Carew still to the fore. They pinned Arsenal back into the own goal area but what the visiting defenders could not clear Almunia snaffled away. Shaun Maloney nearly dribbled through then only a well-timed challenge by Flamini prevented Villa profiting from Diarra's error.
Gilberto replaced Rosicky with 16 minutes left. It was a measure to shut-up-shop and, broadly speaking, it worked. Villa continued to pressure but they had punched themselves out.
Meanwhile Arsenal had boxed clever and, although they had taken some punishment, when the final bell tolled they had landed the killer blows in the contest.
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Hleb 60
- Rosicky 73
- Flamini Goal!
- Adebayor 90 Goal! Yellow Card
- Walcott 60
- Silva 73
- Bendtner 90
- Bouma 76 Yellow Card
- Young Yellow Card
- Petrov 31
- Gardner Goal!
- Carew Yellow Card
- Berger 76
- Maloney 31