By Richard Clarke
Arsenal went top of the table early on Saturday afternoon thanks to a nail-biting 4-2 win at Aston Villa.
After a tough, tough week, Arsène Wenger’s side needed a win of any kind to restore their confidence. They made heavy weather of the three points here today but it was still thoroughly deserved.
Results later on Saturday will probably see them knocked off the summit of the Premier League. But the ability to be there suggests Arsenal’s problems are being overplayed right now.
The visitors bossed the first half but had to wait until 39 minutes until Andrey Arshavin fired home. On the whistle a corner from the Russian, excellent on the day, was volleyed in by Samir Nasri.
Ciaran Clark fired Villa a lifeline six minutes after the restart but Marouane Chamakh replied almost immediately to restore the visitors' two-goal cushion.
Clark headed home with 20 minutes to go but, despite the odd scare, Arsenal were untroubled.
In the final seconds, Chamakh set up Jack Wilshere to head home at the far post.
This win does not answer all the questions posed at Arsenal this week. But it is a blessed relief in current circumstances.
Wenger’s men have had a hard seven days but they are still capable of having a great season.
The Frenchman made seven changes from the side beaten 2-0 at Braga in midweek.
Alex Song, Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin came into midfield. Denilson and Theo Walcott started as substitutes while Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) was sidelined. Chamakh came in for Nicklas Bendtner up front.
Villa had John Carew and James Collins back from injury. Meanwhile Robert Pires was making his first start in English football since Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Wigan in May 2006 – the ‘final salute’ to Highbury.
It was a bitterly cold November afternoon and both sides needed a victory. Arsenal’s travails had been headlines all week but Villa were struggling too. They were used to being a top eight side but they went into this game in the bottom eight. Their side were laudably young but they had been paying for it with points.
And, as it turned out, this afternoon would be expensive.
The visitors might have been ahead within seconds. Arshavin angled a pass to Chamakh eight yards out. Brad Friedel half-blocked his shot, Richard Dunne deflected the ball goalwards and Collins booted the ball of the line.
The Moroccan had scored after 38 seconds at Wolves. This would have been even quicker.
A couple of minutes later Wilshere fed Rosicky and the midfielder drove a snap shot wide of the far post.
In the 14th minute, Chamakh’s back-header fell to the feet of the Czech midfielder just inside the area. He elected to shoot with the outside of his right foot and his effort rolled weakly in to the hands of Friedel.
It was all Arsenal. The visitors had taken the game to Villa and were completely on top. They simply needed a goal.
Chamakh, Arshavin and Nasri all had efforts blocked as Arsenal lined up to shoot.
But there was always the nagging of a breakaway chance.
It came in the 25th minute.
Stewart Downing crossed from the right, Clark flicked it on and Ashley Young popped up at the far post to steer a shot over the bar. In the context of this game, it was a massive miss.
However, it did nothing to turn the tide. Just after the half-hour, Nasri crossed low into the six-yard area and Dunne sliced the ball over his own bar.
Then Arshavin’s trickery left Pires on his backside. The Russian’s cross eventually found Nasri just outside the area. His fierce goal-bound drive hit Chamakh.
To this point, Villa had been pretty abject and the goal they conceded in the 39th minute had as much to do with them as Arsenal.
Two defenders attacked, and then left, a lofted clearance. Arshavin raced on to the ball, cut in from the left and fired into the far corner. The Russian had been afforded too much space and Friedel got a hand on the ball. But it did not matter.
It was Arshavin’s first goal since the trip to Partizan Belgrade on September 28 and utterly deserved.
Seconds later, it should have been 2-0. Arshavin fed Nasri who skipped past Friedel but could only flick the ball into the sidenetting.
In injury time, Friedel produced a stunning save to deny Chamakh’s bullet header. Arshavin thumped the corner to Nasri on the far post and the Frenchman fired home on the volley from the edge of the area.
The goal meant the score finally reflected the game.
Villa mustered a response at the start of the second half. Sagna cleared hurriedly from Ashley Young’s cross and Nathan Delfouneso had a shot charged down.
In the 53rd minute, Squillaci’s clearing header flew high to Clark just outside the area. He was given too much space and thumped a shot into the top left-hand corner of the net. Replays suggested that Carew, who was standing in an offside position, had impaired the view of Fabianski.
It was all horribly reminiscent of last Saturday. But then, three minutes later, Arsenal veered from the script.
Rosicky fed a perceptive pass to the sliding Chamakh, who beat Friedel to the ball and poked home.
That should have killed the game but Arsenal kept on going forward. Chamakh and Arshavin had half-chances for a fourth but the visitors attacking intent allowed space for Villa to exploit.
In the 70th minute, Sagna’s clearance fell to the feet of Clark, who thumped his snap-shot into the sidenetting.
Two minutes later the Villa midfielder did find the net once more. Squillaci nodded the ball out for a corner, Ashley Young fired it to the near post and Clark’s header hit the underside of the bar and bounced down over the line.
The game was in the balance once again – and Villa had now got their game together after a poor first half.
Wenger brought on Denilson and Gibbs to shore up the result. Their introduction came just after Arshavin sent Chamakh through only for a combination of Collins and Friedel to clear the danger.
Arsenal shut up shop in the final stages and Wilshere’s goal finally killed the game.
Some of the players threw their shirts into the visiting fans at the end.
The supporters deserved that as much as their team deserved three points this afternoon.
- Arshavin 84 Goal!
- Rosicky 89
- Nasri 84 Goal!
- Wilshere Goal!
- Chamakh Goal! Yellow Card
- Gibbs 84
- Djourou 89
- Denilson 84
- Clark Goal! Goal! Yellow Card
- Pires 46
- Bannan 85
- Carew 65
- Herd 85
- Ireland 65
- Delfouneso 46