By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal struck three goals in seven superb second-half minutes to storm into the FA Cup fifth round on Sunday.
After 45 minutes this afternoon at Emirates Stadium, Arsène Wenger’s side were staring at an early exit.
Richard Dunne and Darren Bent had given the visitors a 2-0 lead. It seemed that they would be travelling to Sunderland or Middlesbrough in the last 16.
However, sometimes you only realise your own strength when it is truly tested.
Robin van Persie started the comeback from the penalty spot in the 54th minute after Dunne had clattered Aaron Ramsey. Shortly afterwards, Alan Hutton’s clearance cannoned off Theo Walcott and flew into the net.
Then, in the 61st minute, Bent fouled Laurent Koscielny and Van Persie put Arsenal in front for the first time.
By way of celebration the Dutchman jumped into the arms of substitute Thierry Henry, who was warming up on the sidelines.
The expected Villa reply did not really materialise. But then Arsenal had not deserved to be trailing at the break. Sheer guts had hauled them back into a game in which everything had gone against them.
That will surely have a galvanising effect on the squad for the challenges ahead this season.
Underestimate Arsenal at your peril.
Wenger had spent the weekend waiting on fitness tests and mulling over his side. The manager was aware that he would face Bolton and Blackburn in two key Premier League fixtures over the next six days.
In the end, all the injury news was positive and the manager went for a strong line-up. Francis Coquelin returned at right back for the first time since January 2. Lukasz Fabianski had last played at Olympiacos a month earlier. This afternoon he came in as Wojciech Szczesny was rested.
Van Persie had missed the 1-0 win over Leeds in the last round but he started today. Henry and Mikel Arteta were both declared fit but began on the bench.
And, for the first time since October 2, Bacary Sagna was named in a first-team squad. The right back had recovered ahead of schedule from the broken ankle he had suffered at White Hart Lane.
Most of the crowd at Emirates Stadium had already taken their seats when the fifth-round draw was made.
However, focus could not be taken from the matter in hand. Villa had lost only once since they had been narrowly beaten by Arsenal in Birmingham four days before Christmas. And during that spell they had won at Chelsea.
But then, if anything, Villa are an ‘away’ side - they have only lost twice on the road in the Premier League this season.
They would demonstrate that form during this game but it was the home side who took control early on.
After five minutes, Van Persie rolled a free-kick to Thomas Vermaelen who thundered 30-yard effort towards goal at a venomous pace. Shay Given did well to fist the ball over the bar.
Then Tomas Rosicky freed Walcott on the right. He struggled for balance after being clipped and fired his shot wide.
In the 19th minute, Van Persie just failed to connect with Walcott’s low cross and, midway through the half, the captain fired a free-kick into the wall.
To this point, Villa had not registered an effort on goal. But they had threatened. The pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor stretched Arsenal on their right flank while the visitors had a willing worker in Robbie Keane.
And the Irishman played a pivotal role when Villa took the lead just past the half hour. Keane worked a short corner with Stiliyan Petrov before clipping a cross to the far post. Dunne rose highest to plunder a header from close range.
Arsenal’s response was immediate. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was catching the eye once again, reached the byline but his cutback was cleared. Then Rosicky’s snap shot was momentarily spilt by Given.
As half time approached, the home side had built a head of steam. Coquelin’s angled drive through a crowded area was hurriedly hacked clear by Stephen Warnock. Then Aaron Ramsey tricked his way to the byline but Given managed to block as the Welshman tried to squeeze in a shot at the near post.
On the whistle, Van Persie rolled a free-kick to Oxlade-Chamberlain who, like Vermaelen, cracked a rocket-fuelled effort at Given. Again the keeper could not hang on.
Arsenal were piling on the pressure in search of an equaliser. However, they would concede again in injury time.
Villa broke clear and Stephen Ireland fed Bent on the right of the area. Fabianski saved superbly from his first effort but the Englishman pounced on the rebound and squeezed home his shot from the narrowest of angles.
The half-time statistics suggested Arsenal were unfortunate to be trailing at all. However, they had to score twice, at least, in order to stay in the FA Cup.
They might have grabbed one in the opening three minutes. Van Persie’s right-wing was met by the head of Mertesacker. Ireland booted the ball off the line at the far post.
Walcott nearly dribbled his way through and another intricate move saw Ramsey prod a shot at Given.
You sensed Arsenal needed to get some reward in this period if they were to come back.
Fortunately, it arrived just at that moment.
In the 54th minute, Alex Song’s perceptive through ball sent Ramsey clear. He was clean through but Dunne cleaned him out. Van Persie scored from the spot. No 24 of the season.
Three minutes later, Arsenal were level. Walcott darted in from the right, reached the byline and poked a cross into the heart of the area. Hutton swung at his clearance which hit the Arsenal striker and bounced into the unguarded net.
You can call that lucky if you like but Liverpool had scored a similar goal into the same net at the Emirates in the opening home game of the Premier League season.
A small illustration that footballing fortune can even itself out.
Often you find teams that draw level in such rapid fashion and draw breath soon afterwards. However, Arsenal did not take their foot off the pedal this afternoon and, in the 61st minute, grabbed the lead.
Koscielny went marauding down the left and was clumsily brought down by Bent just inside the area.
Van Persie scored No 25 from the spot.
Emirates Stadium had been a cauldron while those three goals were going in. Now it became just a little becalmed. Walcott nearly gave Arsenal a cushion, but Given beat away his drive.
Villa had been caught in a maelstrom. However, time was ticking away and they had to gamble.
Petrov popped up on the byline but Mertesacker blocked his cross with Bent lurking behind him.
Then Ireland’s cross was steered into Fabianski’s arms by the head of Ciaran Clark from point-blank range.
But it was Arsenal pressing forward in the dying minutes. Henry had a glimpse of a chance and Sagna even grabbed a few minutes at the end.
The striker had performed a fairytale comeback in the last round. This time the team had done the job.
Either way, Arsenal are conjuring up special moments in the FA Cup this season.
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Rosicky 71
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 89
- van Persie (C) Goal! Goal!
- Walcott 89 Goal!
- Sagna 89
- Arteta 71
- Henry 89
- Dunne Goal! Yellow Card
- Petrov (C) 82
- Bent Goal!
- Agbonlahor 72
- Bannan 82
- Gardner 72