By Chris Harris
After covering themselves in glory in midweek, Arsenal had to make sure they weren't left with egg on their faces on April Fool's Day. A brace from Thierry Henry and further goals from Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie and Abou Diaby ensured the joke was on Aston Villa.
This fixture may not have the same allure as a visit from Juventus, but it carried just as much significance. If Arsenal don't win the Champions League, they need a top-four finish to dine at Europe's top table next season. This emphatic win, plus defeats for Tottenham and Bolton, strengthened Arsenal's position.
Villa gave as good as they got until the 19th minute when Adebayor headed in off the crossbar after Henry's floated effort was half-cleared by Liam Ridgewell with Thomas Sorensen stranded. Seven minutes later Henry produced one exquisite touch to control Jose Antonio Reyes' chipped pass and another to lift the ball over the Villa goalkeeper.
Henry added another classic to his repertoire in the first minute of the second half, curling the ball into the top corner from 25 yards. Van Persie's clever finish from a narrow angle made it four 20 minutes from time and Diaby scored his first goal for the Club to round off another sparkling display.
It was a performance David Rocastle would have been proud of. This game was dedicated to 'Rocky', five years and a day after he tragically died from cancer. A period of applause for the former Gunner was observed before kick-off and funds raised from the day will go towards the trust which bears Rocastle's name.
Arsene Wenger made one change from the side which started that pulsating win against Juventus. Adebayor, ineligible for the Champions League, returned to partner Henry up front. Alexander Hleb was the midfielder sacrificed as Wenger reverted from 4-5-1 to a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation.
Dennis Bergkamp (groin), Ashley Cole (ankle), Gael Clichy (foot), Pascal Cygan (hamstring) , Lauren (knee), Sol Campbell (toe) and Freddie Ljungberg (calf) were all unavailable. Cesc Fabregas joined Arsenal's walking wounded 15 minutes after kick-off and Emmanuel Eboue also limped off towards the end. Arsenal.com will have the latest on both players' fitness ahead of the trip to Turin.
Highbury basked in sunshine and a warm Champions League afterglow when the players took to the field but it was no surprise that the atmosphere lacked the crackle of Tuesday night.
After a few misplaced passes, Arsenal found their stride. The space in behind Villa right-back Ulises de la Cruz was particularly inviting to their brand of passing and the home side exploited it time and again.
With seven minutes on the clock, Philippe Senderos curved a pass into Reyes' path on the left. Adebayor sprinted into the box but Henry checked his run and Reyes picked him out. A shot - and goal - looked inevitable but Henry, a firm advocate of passing to better-placed team-mates, was over-generous. He tried to find Pires but the pass, and chance, went astray.
Villa took heart. Gareth Barry's excellent pass found Wilfred Bouma on the left flank and he turned the ball inside to Kevin Phillips. The former England striker found a yard of space and shot low, but Lehmann plunged to save comfortably.
The visitors would have fancied their chances even more when Fabregas jogged off with an injury seconds later. Instead, the game swung towards Arsenal as substitute Diaby took a firm grip on midfield alongside Gilberto.
In the 19th minute, the Gunners went ahead. Henry raced onto a lofted diagonal ball from Eboue but Sorensen got there inches ahead of the French striker to palm it away from his feet. Henry reacted instantly to curl a shot over Sorensen but Ridgewell got back to head half clear. It was a temporary reprieve: Adebayor was lurking and his soaring header bounced in off the crossbar. A messy goal but one that Arsenal rarely scored before the Togolese striker arrived at Highbury.
Villa were soon further behind. Reyes chipped a pass over the top of the visitors' defence and Henry showed perfect technique to control with one touch before lifting the ball over Sorensen and under the crossbar. Classic Henry - his 26th goal of the season.
The Arsenal captain soon made it 27. Villa refused to let their heads drop but the next goal would either set up a grandstand finish or a procession. It proved to be the latter. The second half was just 42 seconds old when Henry checked his run and collected a knockdown from Adebayor 25 yards out. He looked up and curled a sumptuous effort past Sorensen and into the top corner.
It was all Arsenal. Adebayor strode forward but shot straight at Sorensen. Senderos powered a header towards the bottom corner but was denied by the keeper. Reyes flashed a shot over the bar. Inevitably, Henry went close to a hat-trick.
Wenger withdrew his skipper with 26 minutes left, no doubt with one eye on Wednesday's trip to Turin. Eboue was also replaced as Robin van Persie and Johan Djourou entered the fray.
Van Persie spoke to Arsenal TV Online this week about the importance of grabbing a goal to cement his comeback. His wish was granted with 20 minutes remaining. The Dutch striker looked to have missed his chance when he took the ball too wide of Sorensen but he checked back, showed quick feet to bewilder the Villa keeper and then found the net.
Jens Lehmann had little to do but did produce one world-class save after Phillips had given Moore a clear sight of goal during a rare Villa breakaway. At the other end, only a brilliant save from Sorensen denied Kolo Toure his first Highbury goal.
There was one more milestone to come though. Adebayor, a real handful all afternoon, charged through and squared the ball for the impressive Diaby to break his Arsenal duck. It was no more than the hosts deserved.
"It is easier to get in the top four than to win the Champions League," Wenger had said before the game. On this evidence, you have to agree with the Arsenal manager.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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