By Chris Harris
How much can you do in 27 minutes?
If you're Cesc Fabregas, that's how long it takes you to come off the bench, galvanise your team, score two world-class goals and then limp off with a possible recurrence of the hamstring injury which delayed your introduction in the first place.
The captain's magnificent cameo was bittersweet for Arsenal but it saw off Aston Villa in style.
Fabregas curled an exquisite free-kick into the top corner to give his side the lead after 65 minutes and rounded off a quickfire counter-attack with nine minutes left to secure a significant victory.
Abou Diaby iced the cake with a well-taken third in stoppage time to leave Arsène Wenger's side four points behind Chelsea at the top of the Premier League - with an all-important game in hand.
Four short weeks ago Arsenal's title challenge was seen by some as a joke. After 13 points from a possible 15, that same quest for the Premier League is deadly serious.
While Chelsea falter, the Gunners are flying. Whether Fabregas' injury is serious enough to clip their wings remains to be seen.
Before kick-off the gossip centred around the Spaniard. Would he be fit to return after injury? The answer was, er... kind of. The captain was deemed OK to take his place among the substitutes but not in the starting line-up. We would have to wait for his heroics.
There were two changes on the pitch though, both at full-back: Bacary Sagna stepped in for Emmanuel Eboue while Armand Traore shrugged off a hamstring problem of his own to replace Mikael Silvestre.
It was a sign of Wenger's respect for Villa that he gave this encounter the same billing as a traditional ‘Big Four' clash. And no wonder. Villa won here last November and have already beaten Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool this season.
While the visitors dreamed of completing a ‘Grand Slam', this was a chance for Arsenal to put clear, blue water between them and Martin O'Neill's side. And there was an extra incentive: Chelsea's latest stutter - a goalless draw at Birmingham - presented another chance to eat into their lead at the top of the table.
Villa's counter-attacking was decisive on their last visit and that threat had to be quelled. But Wenger still demanded the "audaciousness to attack" ahead of the game and his players granted their manager's wish with a sprightly start.
An early free-kick from Samir Nasri caused consternation in the Villa box and Thomas Vermaelen tested Brad Friedel as the ball dropped beyond the far post. Seconds later Diaby span past his marker on the edge of the box and squared for Eduardo. The Croatian turned his own man expertly but his shot lacked power and direction.
It was the kind of chance a confident Eduardo would have snaffled but he was left holding his head in his hands while Wenger span with frustration on the touchline.
Arsenal pressed on. Denilson fizzed an effort over the bar from 20 yards following a well-worked short corner between Eduardo and Nasri. But Villa, having weathered the early storm, began to make inroads of their own.
Emile Heskey scuffed a shot wide in the 10th minute after his excellent knock down had been bundled back by Gabriel Agbonlahor. Ashley Young saw a shot deflect off Bacary Sagna and loop agonisingly wide. And Carlos Cuellar should have done better than slap his left-footed effort off target after the impressive James Milner picked him out on the edge of the box.
Pacy, muscular and disciplined, Villa looked proper top-four material. But Arsenal soon hit back.
And with Andrey Arshavin on the periphery, Nasri and Diaby took the fight to Villa.
First Nasri clipped in a free-kick which Diaby rose to head just over. Then their slick exchange in the 24th minute left Nasri in space inside the box but Stephen Warnock's sliding challenge averted the threat. And on the half-hour Denilson teed up Nasri for a dipping volley which took a deflection and looped just over the bar.
Moments later Diaby's skill and persistence and Denilson's tenacity earned a free-kick on the edge of the box. The Brazilian dusted himself off to hammer a shot into Villa's wall; the ball fell into the path of Sagna and his howitzer whistled just over.
It was compelling stuff, and Arsenal were gaining the upper hand. Their grip strengthened when Fabregas emerged from the bench 11 minutes into the second half. His first contribution? A 40-yard free kick which flew just over the bar.
The captain galvanised his team, not least Arshavin. The diminutive duo were in tandem immediately as Fabregas picked out the Russian for a turn and shot which Brad Friedel did well to palm away.
That was solid keeping but a defensive mix-up almost cost Villa dear on the hour mark.
Arshavin set Eduardo away on the left and, as Luke Young waited for Friedel to claim, Fabregas nipped in. He slipped the ball to Eduardo but the Croatian's goal-bound shot was hacked clear by Cuellar.
With 25 minutes left, the deadlock was broken. Fabregas won a free-kick 22 yards out after his jinking run was illegally halted by Richard Dunne. The skipper picked himself up and curled an exquisite effort into the top left-hand corner with Friedel grasping at thin air.
Alex Song sliced a shot over the crossbar as Arsenal pressed on and another classic finish from Fabregas sealed the points nine minutes from time.
Traore arrowed a diagonal pass into the path of Theo Walcott on the right and the substitute slid the ball into the path of Fabregas, who had charged through the centre at full pelt. He barely broke stride to slam a lot shot past Friedel and double Arsenal's lead.
The Emirates erupted but, almost immediately, there was concern. Fabregas was hobbling as he celebrated and, within four minutes, the Spaniard had been replaced by Aaron Ramsey.
It was a sad end to an extraordinary performance from the Arsenal captain. He was the catalyst for a priceless victory; his return cannot come soon enough.
Not that Arsenal did badly in his absence.
Diaby, probably the game's second most impressive performer, slotted home a fine goal of his own in stoppage time.
It capped an almost perfect day.
- Almunia (C)
- Diaby Goal!
- Denilson 56
- Song Yellow Card
- Eduardo 64
- Walcott 64
- Fabregas 84 56 Goal! Goal!
- Ramsey 84
- Young 75
- Petrov (C)
- Cuellar Yellow Card
- Young Yellow Card
- Heskey 63
- Delph 75 Yellow Card
- Carew 63