By Matt Fortune
Easy on the eye but occasionally sloppy. Decisive but sometimes lethargic. Denied by the woodwork but saved in similar fashion. Arsenal's 1-0 win over Aston Villa was a head-spinning rollercoaster ride.
The victory came courtesy of Nacer Barazite's second goal in as many games, adding further substance to the fact the 17-year-old was included in the recent Carling Cup squad.
James Dunne had earlier become the first Arsenal player this season to receive his marching orders for apparently gesturing a head-butt in the direction of an opponent. But despite being a man light for most of the second half, the home side prevailed.
Arsenal manager Neil Banfield had a called for a much-improved performance on the draw at West Ham last time out. Mark Randall was the only change from the fixture at Upton Park, replacing Vincent van den Berg for only his third start of an injury-hit season.
With their first-team playing on Wednesday, Aston Villa did not include any names of note in the squad. That was somewhat of a rarity for them - players like Marlon Harewood and Thomas Sorenson have featured for the second string this season. Nevertheless the players that took to the field oozed quality.
After the three-week absence from competitive action, the home side's nervy start was not surprising. It allowed Villa to fling a succession of crosses into the box, but luckily few were of the required quality to test the Arsenal backline.
They should have taken the lead as early as the fifth minute. Chris Herd ghosted into the box and drilled a shot low to Vito Manonne's right. The Italian got down well before jumping to his feet and remonstrating ferociously with his defence. It was well-placed criticism.
Harry Forrester, creator of many of the visitors' openings, was a nuisance all evening. Sheer endeavour from youngster, coupled with some fine touches led to several half-chances for the league leaders. They couldn't take them.
Quite against the run of play Arsenal then nearly took the lead. The visitors had the crossbar to thank for thwarting a stinging drive from Fran Merida. The Spaniard's unfavoured right foot effort beat all those in a crowded box before bouncing down off the angle and away to safety.
This was a Villa side unbeaten all season and with an average of over three goals a game. Arsenal in truth have struggled in that department due largely to a succession of injuries up front. A point typified by Barazite, an attacking midfielder, playing a lone striker's role. His isolation meant that apart from a couple of half-chances and Merida's thunderbolt there was little attacking threat from Arsenal in the opening half.
The Gunners seemed intent on spoiling their own party. Mannone, by far the busier keeper, nearly gifted Tobias Mikaelsson with an opening but, after his kick went straight to the Swede, Mannone redeemed himself with an expert save with his feet.
It was not the first time the Italian was the architect of his own downfall. On the second occasion his kick was charged down, the post came to his rescue. To the keeper's credit, he also demonstrated an array of superb saves to keep a previously free-scoring Villa at bay for the remainder of the half.
The visitors would certainly have felt aggrieved not to be leading at the break. Three minutes after the interval their cause was aided further by the dismissal of Dunne. However what had been an overwhelming dominance was strangely diminished along with the Arsenal man's presence.
The home side seemed galvanized by the sense of injustice and it was they who reacted best. They began to assert themselves all over the pitch, although their fortunes initially remained unchanged, Barazite and then Paul Rodgers going within a whisker of breaking the deadlock.
Tensions did threatened to boil over as Merida went down clutching his head - inconsistency from the man in black left Banfield fuming.
On the hour, Barazite made the breakthrough. It was classic Arsenal, turning defence into attack in a matter of seconds. The Dutchman was found on the corner of the box where he jinked left and right to work himself a yard before unleashing a delicious drive low across the despairing David Bevan.
The remainder of the match played out at a frustratingly slow pace. Niggly challenges broke the play up and chances were at a premium. Barazite drilled another shot wide and Merida tested Bevan from range but a goal seemed unlikely.
So it proved. Arsenal close the gap on Villa three points and head to bottom-of-the-table Derby in a week's time.
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