By Richard Clarke
For a while the house-warming party looked it might fall flat but a late arrival did enough to lift the Arsenal spirits on an historic day at Emirates Stadium.
The Club's new home had been opened last month when they said goodbye to Dennis Bergkamp. So perhaps it was fitting that the arrival of a major new attacking talent would help save face in the first Premiership match at the ground
Theo Walcott came off the bench in the 73rd minute. His impact was immediate and, 11 minutes later, the 17-year-old's cultured cross was nodded down for Gilberto to smash home a joyous equaliser. It was no more than Arsenal deserved on the day.
They had been the better side until Olof Mellberg headed Villa in front eight minutes after the interval. The visitors were organised and committed throughout but their ambition was limited.
Maybe this was not the sweetest start for Arsenal at Emirates Stadium but at least they did not have to swallow the bitter pill of defeat.
Wenger was without a raft of players for the curtain-raiser. Philippe Senderos [shoulder], Gael Clichy [foot], Abou Diaby [ankle], Tomas Rosicky [groin], Jose Antonio Reyes [groin] and Lauren [knee] were all injured while Ashley Cole was left out amid the speculation surrounding his proposed move to Chelsea.
It meant Freddie Ljungberg was brought back early from his ankle problem. Justin Hoyte and Johan Djourou retained their places on the left and centre of the defence respectively.
Arsenal were quicker off the blocks. Emmanuel Eboue strode into the area in the fifth minute and nearly fooled Thomas Sorensen with a rising near-post effort. The big Danish keeper had to adjust his body in midair to tip the ball over the bar. Adebayor met the resulting corner with a firm, downward header but Jlloyd Samuel, stationed on the post, managed to block the shot on the line.
The home side continued to have the better of the game with Eboue particularly eye-catching with his raids from right back. But Villa would have their moments. Emirates Stadium held its collective breathe when Juan Pablo Angel went through midway through the first half. Djourou calmed any fears with a well-timed sliding challenge.
Before that Henry flicked wide but it was flagged offside, Gilberto's shot was deflected past the post and Cesc Fabregas drove over the bar.
On the stroke of half time, Arsenal 'scored'. However once again the assistant referee flagged, this time because Kolo Toure had strayed offside just before nodding in a floated Fabregas free-kick
Arsenal had greater urgency at the start of the second half and, in the opening minutes, it seemed that Henry and Adebayor had almost too many options in front of goal.
The wake-up call would be swift and sharp. In the 52nd minute, Villa won corner on the left and Steven Davis swung it to the near post. Lehmann, Adebayor and Mellberg converged on it but the Swede got the crucial touch. His header flew into the net and for once the Arsenal fans were silent. The Villa contingent were ecstatic.
Arsenal responded immediately. Hoyte sent over a regulation cross from the left. Villa defence panicked and Adebayor stole in at the near post. He flicked the ball past Sorensen at the near post but Ridgewell slid in to block the Togolese striker's shot on the line.
Eboue had a near-post drive batted aside by Sorensen as Arsenal cranked up the pressure. Robin van Persie replaced Adebayor then, in the 73rd minute, Walcott came on for the flagging Ljungberg. Wenger had used both his attacking substitutes - he was going for broke.
The 17-year-old made an instant impact. In the 75th minute his trick started a move that ended up with Eboue hitting the bar.
By now the Villa defence, so strong for so long, was looking weary. They were starting to hang on. Ridgewell flicked a header over his own bar and Hleb saw a long range effort blocked
Then, finally, the equaliser arrived. Walcott clipped over a cross from the left, Van Persie challenged Samuel for the header and the ball fell nicely for Gilberto to lash home a shot at the far post. There was only one word applicable - relief.
Arsenal stormed the Villa goal in pursuit of the winner. The nearest they came was when Henry trickled a shot wide in injury time.
- Toure Yellow Card
- Hoyte 80
- Silva Goal!
- Ljungberg 73
- Adebayor 66
- Flamini 80
- Walcott 73
- Persie 66
- Mellberg Goal!
- Davis 82
- Angel Yellow Card
- Agbonlahor 88
- Hendrie 82 Yellow Card
- Djemba-Djemba 88