By Richard Clarke at Villa Park
Substitute Yossi Benayoun grabbed an 87th-minute winner as Arsenal started their festive fixtures in fine style at Aston Villa on Wednesday night.
In truth, the Israeli has been a largely peripheral figure at Emirates Stadium since signing on loan from Chelsea in August but his stooping header provided a crucial three points for Arsène Wenger’s side this evening.
It was a nice moment for one of the team's truly nice guys.
Robin van Persie fired Arsenal in front from the penalty spot in the 17th minute after Ciaran Clark tugged Theo Walcott. It was his 34th Premier League goal in 2011.
Villa were probably worth more at the interval and grabbed the equaliser just before the hour when Marc Albrighton stole in before slotting past Wojceich Szczesny.
In all honesty, this was not Arsenal at their best or their most fluent. But this newly-formed side has spirit.
Wenger’s second-half substitutions were crucial. Tomas Rosicky put the visitors on the front foot for the first time in the game and Benayoun added the energy.
Alan Hutton’s late red card made it a miserable night for Villa.
But, after having their long unbeaten run ended at Manchester City on Sunday, Arsenal are on the march again.
Wenger made two enforced changes from the side narrowly beaten at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Emmanuel Frimpong replaced the suspended Alex Song in central midfield while Francis Coquelin filled at right back following Johan Djourou’s groin injury.
Arsenal came into this game with a mighty record at Villa Park – six wins and six draws in their last 12 visits.
They had played well in defeat at Manchester City on Sunday but, with Villa struggling for form, they need a replenishing three points this evening.
However, McLeish’s men had not read the script. They tore into Arsenal in the opening stages and should have taken the lead.
In the sixth minute, Charles N’Zogbia’s cross was met at the far post by Gabriel Agbonlahor's header and Szczesny threw himself to his right to bat the ball off the line.
Five minutes later, N’Zogbia jostled Coquelin off the ball near the left-hand byline and, although Agbonlahor met a low cross just four yards out his bobbling shot bounced over the bar.
Villa were having joy down the flanks and Arsenal were struggling to stop them firing penetrative crosses into the box. Szczesny’s hands were warmed with regularity but Koscielny’s head was ice-cool in a sometimes congested area.
Arsenal had only just grabbed a foothold in the game when they took the lead. Walcott darted inside from the left-hand side and Clark threw out a grabbing arm and hauled him back. Van Persie fired a confident penalty into the top corner.
It equaled Henry’s Arsenal record for Premier League goals and, incredibly, was his first at Villa Park
The lead had been stolen but, seconds later, it was nearly doubled. Walcott went through again on the right this time but his shot deflected off the onrushing Brad Guzan.
Just past the half-hour, Gervinho and Van Persie prodded Aaron Ramsey clear momentarily but, with defenders closing in, the stretching Welshman slashed his shot well wide.
By now Villa’s early thirst had been quenched and Arsenal began playing the game in their half for the first time. As is the Wenger way, they had imposed their will with patient passing and Mikel Arteta was the orchestrator.
Shortly before half-time Barry Bannan replaced Stephen Ireland and, with his first touch, curled a free-kick into the side-netting.
Villa went for Arsenal again at the start of the second half but it was all a bluster.
Ironically their goal came when they were just starting to run out of steam. Vermaelen nodded Agbonlahor’s flick-on towards Per Mertesacker but Albrighton nipped in, raced through and slotted his shot past Szczesny.
The goal stung Arsenal. Wenger brought on Rosicky for Frimpong and the visitors started to sustain pressure for the first time in the game. They forced a flurry a corners and, from one, Mertesacker’s drove a drop-down goalward. Guzan made a fine save.
As we approached the final 15 minutes, the game was on a knife-edge. Villa continued to throw probing crosses into the box, Arsenal started to exploit their pace in wide areas.
In the last 10 minutes, Wenger introduced Benayoun and Andrey Arshavin. It upped the ante immediately and one fluent move saw Rosicky’s drive blocked.
The visitors were asking all the questions and the Israeli finally answered by nodding home at the far post from Van Persie’s corner. It was cruel on Villa but they had lost concentration at the vital time and Wenger's side meted out football's punishment.
Hutton’s two yellow cards in the final minutes showed how much the goal had hurt Villa.
Arsenal, on the other hand, had bounced back in style.
- Coquelin Yellow Card
- Mertesacker Yellow Card
- Frimpong 66
- Ramsey 81
- Persie (C) Goal! Yellow Card
- Gervinho 81
- Benayoun 81 Goal!
- Arshavin 81
- Rosicky 66
- Hutton Yellow Card Red Card
- Albrighton 88 Goal!
- Clark Yellow Card
- Petrov (C)
- Ireland 45
- Bannan 45
- Delfouneso 88