By Richard Clarke
Arsenal began their ‘awesome foursome' with a goalless draw at Aston Villa on Wednesday night.
In the next fortnight Arsène Wenger's side take on a quartet of the Premier League's finest in a spell that could define their title bid.
They opened that run with an attacking, exciting but ultimately even contest this evening. Villa drew a stunning save from Manuel Almunia in the opening minutes and had the more persistent pressure throughout. However the visitors hit the woodwork in each half - via Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky respectively - and nearly stole all three points at the death. They are now unbeaten in their last 10 Premier League games.
Arsenal had to throw on a rusty Sol Campbell in the first half after Thomas Vermaelen hobbled off. Wenger will also be pleased at the return of Nicklas Bendtner after three months out. But that only happened when Eduardo pulled up injured.
So while there are certain positives and negatives to take in, the mathematics (and Chelsea's victory) mean Arsenal have dropped the third.
Of course Wenger always knew that the key games in this spell come on Sunday against Manchester United and the following weekend at Stamford Bridge.
It seems that crunch time has now arrived.
Not surprisingly there were wholesale changes to the Arsenal side that had lost to Stoke on Sunday. That was the point of the XI sent out at the Britannia Stadium.
More pertinently, there was just one alteration from the team that had gone top of the table by beating Bolton a week earlier - and even that was enforced. Aaron Ramsey replacing the injured Abou Diaby.
Meanwhile Bendtner was back on the bench. His first involvement of any sort since October 31 following groin trouble.
Villa had swarmed all over Arsenal in the early stages of this fixture last season and were unfortunate to lead by just one goal at the break.
They started in very much the same vein this evening. The home side should have taken the lead within three minutes, Gabriel Agbonlahor escaped in the left-hand channel and drove a low shot towards the far corner. Almunia thrust out an instinctive hand to touch the ball past the upright.
It was arguably the best save the keeper had made this season.
Villa were quicker, sharper and looking more determined. Arsenal were on the back foot. They had pockets of pressure but it took the visitors the best part of half an hour to reach an equilibrium.
In the ninth minute, Rosicky turned the ball back to Eduardo, whose bobbling shot was shepherded out for a corner by Richard Dunne. When it came in Denilson fired wide.
But three minutes later, Vermaelen brought down Emile Heskey and Ashley Young curled a free-kick a foot or so wide.
Both Arsenal centre halves were being overworked. Gallas tangled with Agbonlahor on the edge of the area but referee Lee Probert waved play on. The Frenchman was already looking like a stand out player while Vermealen seemed to be struggling after receiving treatment for a leg injury.
It was no surprise when the Belgian hobbled off in the 34th minute and Campbell came on.
That change came seconds after Ashley Young fooled Clichy on the right and, with numerous options in the centre, lofted a ball to the far post. The onrushing Stewart Downing could only sidefoot a shot high over the bar. A waste.
Villa continued to pepper the Arsenal area for the reminder of the half but the visitors started to dig themselves a foot hold in the game.
On the stroke of half time they nearly stole the lead. Fabregas dribbled across the face of goal and slid an angled shot past Freidel and against the base of the post. The ball bounced out towards Rosicky but Ramsey went for it as well. Eventually the Czech international took control but, by then, the area was crowded and he hacked his effort high over the bar.
It was Arsenal's best chance of the half but the visitors still needed the break more than the home side.
They returned refreshed.
In the opening seconds, Arshavin and Clichy combined for the Frenchman to send in a low cross but Friedel beat Fabregas to the ball at the near post.
However a couple of minutes later, Villa should have gone ahead. Young's cross deflected off Gallas and flew over Sagna to Downing at the back post. It seemed the simplest of headers but the former Middlesbrough winger nodded meekly wide. Downing had now enjoyed the two clearest opportunities of the game and had missed them both.
Young's diving header was another indication that Villa had wrestled control of the game once more.
But just then, on the hour, Arsenal nearly scored. Arshavin fled down the left, outpaced the Villa defence but Friedel blocked his shot. Fabregas picked up the rebound and fed Rosicky. The Czech midfielder saw his drive cannon down off the underside of the bar and bounce away.
Before that chance, Eduardo had pulled up while chasing down a clearance and had indicated he needed to come off. After it, Bendtner replaced him.
Arsenal now seemed to have found some impetus. Fabregas saw a deflected dive drift wide while Ramsey and Arshavin had a couple of promising moves snuffed out at the last.
However this was a difficult game to call. As soon as one side began dominating, the other came back.
The final quarter of the game began with Villa on top. However although they won a flurry of free-kicks and corners the home side could do little with them.
Nasri replaced Rosicky and, almost immediately, saw a long range effort deflect wide.
The game built to a mighty crescendo with Arsenal marginally the better side.
In injury time, a fairy tale was quashed when Campbell pounced onto a loose ball in the area only to see his swivelling shot blocked.
The whistle blew seconds later. This was a decent point certainly, but is it enough?
We'll find out in the next 10 days.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Vermaelen 35 Yellow Card
- Rosicky 78
- Fabregas (C)
- Eduardo 62
- Campbell 35
- Nasri 78
- Bendtner 62
- Dunne Yellow Card
- Petrov (C)
- Heskey 78 Yellow Card
- Delph 78