By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal tightened their grip on third place with a comfortable 3-0 win over Aston Villa on Saturday.
Goals from Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott all but secured the victory in the first half. After that, Arsène Wenger’s side professionally ‘saw-out’ the victory until Mikel Arteta added a spectacular free-kick in injury time.
It was Arsenal’s seventh victory in a row in the Premier League – the club’s best run since October 2007 – and oozed of a new-found confidence.
Before this game, Arsenal’s nearest rivals in the table – Chelsea and Tottenham - had played out a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge. The best result possible.
It all means Wenger’s team now have a three-point advantage over their north London rivals and are eight points in front of Roberto Di Matteo’s men.
Arsenal have been doing very special things of late. But, Arteta’s strike apart, this was probably not one of those.
It was a regulation win by the home side – well deserved and well controlled.
But the three points were no less important than those gained against Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland.
The Arsenal success story just rolls on and on.
Wenger’s teamsheet showed one change from the side that had toughed out a crucial 1-0 win at Everton. Gervinho replaced Aaron Ramsey on the left.
However, there would be another alteration before kick-off as Laurent Koscielny injured his knee in the warm-up. Johan Djourou stepped up from the bench.
Villa arrived in 15th place having suffered heartbreaking defeats to Arsenal at home in the league and away in the FA Cup already this season.
However, their last Premier League trip to Emirates had brought them three points and had made them the most successful visitors to Arsenal’s new home.
The ground was bathed in spring sunshine this afternoon. Perhaps we should not have been surprised - after today Arsenal had only eight games left this term.
Summer was not far away and, it seemed, Wenger’s men had timed their run to perfection. In the past month they had eased their way past Chelsea and Tottenham to go third. Their early result gave Arsenal the opportunity to create some distance.
And, right from the first kick, that is precisely what they tried to do.
Villa had the first chance when Marc Albrighton raced clear and fired over. But after that Arsenal snatched control.
Thomas Vermaelen headed over in the seventh minute and then, shortly afterwards, Walcott’s touch sent Gervinho clear on the right.
He found Robin van Persie whose exquisite backheel invited the onrushing Englishman to shoot. Shay Given saved his drive and Bacary Sagna hacked the rebound wide.
Arsenal were finding their rhythm and, inevitably, they would soon find the net. In the 16th minute, Gervinho sent Gibbs into space on the left of the area. The full back fired low and hard to the near post. Given could only help the ball into the net.
It was Gibbs’ second goal of the season – and of his entire professional career. The other had come against Shrewsbury in the Carling Cup earlier this term.
The goal was all the incentive Arsenal needed to attack. Their six-game winning run had already instilled them with confidence, going in front just handed them license to try for another.
It arrived in the 25th minute via Alex Song’s lofted assist, something in which he is becoming quite the expert. Walcott’s first touch was wonderful and his finish efficient. It was his ninth of the season.
Arsenal were now effervescent. Van Persie volleyed over at the near post before Arteta’s vicious long-range strike had to be hurriedly tipped over by Given. The keeper also clutched the Dutchman’s dangerous chip.
Six minutes from the break it might have been three. Song led a raid through the middle and fed Van Persie, who stumbled as he reached the ball and the chance seemed to have gone. However, he recovered instantly and, with Given stranded, fired at the seemingly empty goal. From nowhere, Stephen Warnock appeared to nod the ball over the bar. An incredible block that surely kept Villa in the game.
The visitors had more about them in the second half. They had to improve or Arsenal were simply going to increase the pain.
Villa started to foray forward more but, barring the odd corner, Wojciech Szczesny was barely tested.
In fact the chances were still coming from Arsenal. Gibbs’ telling cross saw Van Persie go close and then, midway through the half, Tomas Rosicky tested Given from long range.
Wenger brought on Andre Santos and Aaron Ramsey for Gibbs and Gervinho. The Brazilian full back made a nervous return after almost four months out. He gave the ball away to Andreas Weimann in a dangerous position. The Villa substitute fired straight across goal.
Arsenal seemed a little stung by the chance and dug in. Arteta’s free-kick rippled the top of the net and Ramsey fired wide.
As the time ticked away, the home seemed to become increasingly aware of their position. They had the points, all they need to do was stop Villa snatching them.
It made for a somewhat stilted second half but Arsenal were simply doing their job. The crowd certainly seemed happy enough, serenading their manager with shouts of “there’s only one Arsène Wenger.”
Eight minutes from time, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain motored past Warnock and seemed to be brought down in the area by Stephen Ireland. Replays showed the Villa midfielder had won the ball.
Weimann had a shot blocked by Djourou towards the end, arguably Villa's best chance of the game. But, as ever, Arsenal had the last word. Song was fouled just outside the area and Arteta cracked home a delicious free-kick from long range.
The perfect ending as Arsenal march on.
* Before kick-off, Arsenal fans remembered their former player Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a heart attack last weekend while playing for Bolton. A giant banner was unfurled at the north end of the ground and passed over the heads of supporters. It drew rapturous applause.
- Gibbs 68 Goal!
- Walcott 78 Goal!
- Arteta Goal!
- Gervinho 68
- Santos 68
- Ramsey 68
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 78
- Hutton 78
- Warnock Yellow Card
- Collins Yellow Card
- Herd 53
- Petrov Yellow Card
- Ireland Yellow Card
- Heskey 66
- Lichaj 78 Yellow Card
- Weimann 66
- Gardner 53