By Richard Clarke
Arsenal moved up to third place in the Premiership for the first time this year with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Aston Villa on Wednesday night.
After bowing out of three major competitions in the last fortnight, the character of Arsène Wenger's side was under as much scrutiny at Villa Park tonight as their footballing technique.
But they came through both examinations with distinction. The deciding goal came after only 10 minutes when an unwitting Abou Diaby diverted Julio Baptista's shot past the flat-footed Thomas Sorensen. They went on to create - and then spurn - a host of chances before the break with Jeremie Aliadiere the biggest culprit.
However if Arsenal had comfortably controlled the first half then Villa dominated the second. It was 45 minutes of one-way traffic but crucially they failed to force a top-drawer save from Jens Lehmann.
Gilberto and William Gallas were outstanding at centre back on a night when grit rather than guile took precedence. Despite recent reports to the contrary, Arsenal have more than their fair share of both.
With injuries still mounting, Wenger had little choice but to patch up his side and send them out in search of points in his 400th Premiership game. Thierry Henry's season ended last week because of damaged groin/stomach muscles and Robin Van Persie is still some way from fitness because of a broken foot. Alex Hleb picked up a knee problem in training while Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Emmanuel Adebayor and Gael Clichy were all suspended. It was all hands to the pump in order to steer the Arsenal ship towards the safety of a Champions League place. Significantly, Gilberto stayed at centre half with Johan Djourou alongside him at right back.
Given Arsenal's disappointing last fortnight you might have thought the opening would be flat - far from it.
The first half was a flowing, open affair with neither defence looking totally assured. Arsenal opened the scoring in unusual fashion in the 10th minute when Baptista unleashed an optimistic shot from 20 yards and Diaby diverted the ball past a stranded Sorensen.
It was the French midfielder's second goal for Arsenal but only he could tell you whether his input was intentional.
The visitors should have had a couple more by the midway point of the half. Aliadiere raced clear in the left-hand channel but delayed his shot and Sorensen snaffled it around the post.
Then Cesc Fabregas chipped a pass forward for Baptista to latch onto. However this time Olof Mellberg smothered the danger. The same pair combined to create another strange chance in the 20th minute. The Spaniard's corner hit Baptista full in the face and it deflected goalwards at pace. Sorensen had to be at his sharpest to keep the ball out.
Aliadiere was continuing to look lively however his final pass sometimes lacked precision. But if Arsenal were the rapier then Villa's John Carew was the cudgel and the burly Norwegian striker bullied his side back into the game midway through the half.
He burst through in the 23rd minute and Djourou clipped his heels. Referee Martin Atkinson had to decide a) whether the challenge was in the area and b) whether the Swiss centre half was the last man. The official favoured Arsenal on both counts.
Carew hammered the resulting free-kick into the wall and Mellberg's fiercely driven rebound was deflected wide.
Villa's chances continued to come. Carew whistled a shot over the bar from distance, then thumped wide and Gareth Barry's pot-shot troubled Lehmann briefly before drifting high.
However the best Villa opportunity of the half came in the 38th minute. Wilfred Bouma sent Barry clear on the left and he had time to cut the ball back with precision. He found Ashley Young on the edge of the area but the £9 million man from Watford wasted the opportunity by shooting tamely at Lehmann.
Two minutes from the break Arsenal looked like they had doubled their advantage. Ljungberg fired a cross to the far post and it was met perfectly by the leaping Aliadiere. He aimed to head the ball downwards however his direction was poor. The ball bounced down into the ground and over the bar.
Villa were re-invigorated after the interval and flew at Arsenal from the off. Carew raced through and nearly flicked the ball past Lehmann, then Gabriel Agbonlahor just failed to guide home a header from six yards out.
Ljungberg had to hack the ball off his own line after Diaby had diverted a corner goalwards then Carew smashed an effort just wide.
It was time for Arsenal to roll up their sleeves. Villa were piling on the pressure and pinging crosses into the area. They had a couple of half-shouts for penalties as the visitors were penned back.
Wenger made changes by bring off Diaby and Baptista for Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.
However the Villa pressure was relentless. Twelve minutes from time, Fabregas backtracked brilliantly to prevent Young's cross reaching the unmarked Carew. The Norwegian then fired a tired shot at Lehmann when perhaps he should have done better
By this point Arsenal appeared to be hanging on. Breakaways were rare but, at the same time, the visiting defence had shielded their keeper wonderfully well. Gallas and Gilberto had been immense all evening.
The visitors might have secured the game with a breakaway goal at the end. Rosicky and Fabregas both steered efforts just wide.
That would have been extremely harsh on Villa but, at the same time, after the past fortnight perhaps Arsenal deserved a little good fortune.
- Djourou Yellow Card
- Diaby 64 Goal!
- Julio Baptista 66
- Aliadiere 91
- Senderos 91
- Flamini 66
- Rosicky 64
- Bouma Yellow Card
- McCann 74
- Berger 74