By Richard Clarke
Once again the heady fizz of a midweek Carling Cup win left a bitter aftertaste for Arsenal the following weekend.
Back on September 23, Arsène Wenger’s much-heralded youngsters demolished Sheffield United 6-0 only for the senior side to drop a shock 2-1 defeat to Hull four days later.
Arsenal came into this game on the back of another cracking Carling Cup night. This time a 3-0 win over a full-strength Wigan.
However, on the day, they were well-beaten by an inventive and committed Villa side.
Martin O’Neill’s side deserved to be ahead at the break and would have been if Ashley Young had beaten Manuel Almunia from the penalty spot. In fact Villa would have to wait until the 70th minute for their opener. It came when Gael Clichy nodded into his own net under pressure from Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Ten minutes later the Villa striker would get on the scoresheet himself, chasing a long ball forward, holding off William Gallas and firing home.
Arsenal created little pressure and precious few opportunities on the day. It was the first time in 58 Premier League games they had lost by more than one goal and their first home defeat to Villa in the competition since 1993.
And of course it was only Arsenal’s second home reverse for 44 games.
They are now nine points off the pace in the Premier League title race.
Despite the return to fitness of top-scorer Emmanuel Adebayor after an ankle injury, Wenger stuck with the side that had beaten Manchester United the previous Saturday. It was a no-brainer really. The Togolese target man is top quality but possession is more nine tenths of the law in football. Those who had played Arsenal back into the title race deserved to keep their shirts.
Speaking of rewards, five of Tuesday’s Carling Cup heroes were on the bench this afternoon – Carlos Vela, Alex Song, Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou and Aaron Ramsey. It said much about Arsenal’s perceived lack of squad.
Last season, this fixture had come directly after the game that was later considered to have changed Arsenal’s title bid – Birmingham away. History may go on to give this match the same stature after that crucial win after Manchester United – but it did not seem like it on the strength of the first half.
The opening salvos suggested Villa would be every bit as tough as they had been back in February when Nicklas Bendtner salvaged a last-gasp point.
Ashley Young hammered a drive into the chest of Almunia in the first few seconds and, for the initial 15 minutes, Villa continued to enjoy advantages in terms of possession and territory.
Arsenal had their moments – Walcott fired across goal and Brad Freidel spilled a Cesc Fabregas shot – but otherwise they were second-best. And the score should have reflected that in the 20th minute.
Barry swung a high, swirling cross into the area. Three Villa players were in position at the near post where it landed but Clichy, the only defender present, managed to scoop the ball away. It fell to Ashley Young on the edge of the area but he was tripped by Walcott as he went through. It looked a clear penalty and referee Mike Riley duly pointed to the spot.
Ashley Young took the spot-kick instead of Gareth Barry who had been injured in the build-up but Almunia managed to block and William Gallas slid the ball away from danger. It should have been a massive moment for Arsenal. The best wake-up call they could have got.
But it did not turn out that way.
The home side were nearly caught napping a couple of minutes later when Ashley Young clipped a ball forward for Steven Sidwell to race through. The former Gunner beat the offside trap but, off-balance, he could only hook a weak shot straight at Almunia.
Arsenal were being caught out time after time with Barry pulling the strings and Ashley Young providing the legs. The latter battered a long-range effort just past the post on the half hour and, 10 minutes from the break, the former forced another fine save from Almunia.
At half-time, the keeper had been the only thing preventing Arsenal from trailing.
The interval did little to interrupt Villa’s flow. Before the hour-mark, Ashley Young curled a free-kick wide and Gabriel Agbonlahor nearly connected with Barry’s corner from the right. Villa were peppering the Arsenal area with crosses but thankfully Almunia’s handling was expert this afternoon.
Meanwhile at the other end, the home side were creating little and sustaining barely any pressure. It was no surprise to see Wenger throw on Adebayor for Diaby in the 61st minute and switch from 4-4-1-1 to 4-4-2. Carlos Vela replaced Bendtner shortly afterwards as Arsenal entered the final quarter of the game with a new front pair.
However, the Mexican had not even touched the ball when his side went behind.
On 70 minutes, Young curled in a cross from the left and, under pressure from Agbonlahor, Clichy nodded the ball into his own net.
To add to Arsenal’s woes, Sagna was injured in the build-up and had to be stretchered off. Kolo Toure replaced him at right back.
It was quite ironic that the home side chose that moment to fashion their clearest chance of the match. Clichy slung a high ball to the far post, Adebayor rose highest and his stumbling header bounced off the upright.
In the 76th minute, Vela chested the ball down for Adebayor but the Togolese saw his shot blocked and his follow-up fly high over the bar.
The Mexican striker would have an unwitting hand in Villa’s second. He seemed to be fouled on the edge of the area but referee Riley waved play on. The visitors thumped the ball forward for Agbonlahor, who outsprinted Gallas to plant his shot beyond Almunia.
It was a sickener for Arsenal. But you could have no case for any other result but an away win.The home side pressured until the end but Brad Friedel was largely untroubled.
This had been a very, very bad day at the office.
Referee: Mike Riley
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