By Richard Clarke
An injury-time strike from Zat Knight denied Arsenal victory in dramatic style on Boxing Day at Villa Park.
Having survived a haunting first period when the home team hit the post three times, Arsène Wenger’s side seemed to have hauled a crucial victory out of the fire with goals from Denilson and Abou Diaby either side of half time.
However Villa were thrown a lifeline in the 64th minute when William Gallas felled Gabriel Agbonlahor and Gareth Barry scored from the spot.
Martin O’Neill’s outfit threw everything at Wenger’s men in the final half-hour but the away side seemed set to hold on until Knight lashed home a loose ball just before the final whistle. It was a body blow to Arsenal’s title hopes as the other member of the ‘Big Four’ all won. They are now 10 points behind leaders Liverpool.
That said, Villa were the top flight’s in-form side and it is telling that they were more relieved than the injury-hit visitors.
But Arsenal must play a supreme game of catch-up in 2009 if they are going to play a role in the title race.
We knew before kick-off that Arsène Wenger would be without two of his most influential players for a fixture of ever increasing importance. In the end he would lose two more before kick-off.
The draw with Liverpool last Sunday had seen Cesc Fabregas sidelined for around four months with knee ligaments while Emmanuel Adebayor was suspended for this game after being sent off against Rafa Benitez’ side.
However it was not widely known that Gael Clichy had aggravated a calf problem against the Anfield side. As a result he started as a substitute and Mikael Silvestre slotted in at left back.
In addition Johann Djourou tweaked his calf in the warm-up and dropped out at the last minute so Kolo Toure was an emergency elevation from the bench.
Wenger decided against swapping like for like and bringing in Nicklas Bendtner for Adebayor up front. Instead he pushed up Diaby just behind Robin van Persie. Emmanuel Eboue and Samir Nasri provided the width around central midfielders Alex Song and Denilson.
It was a bitter Boxing Day night in Birmingham. This game was always going to be crucial for both sides but victories for the other three sides in the top five cranked up the pressure still further just before kick-off.
The game began at a startling pace. Given their form, it was unsurprising that Villa were the more confident of the two teams.
They might have taken in the lead as early as the sixth minute when Silvestre gave away a corner on the left. Barry swung it in to the near post and Steven Sidwell thundered a header against the bar.
Four minutes later, Villa had an even better opportunity when Barry floated over a cross from the left and an unmarked Curtis Davies – who had stayed up for the preceding corner – steered a header woefully wide. Replays show it had actually came off his shoulder.
Almost immediately the big defender had to hack clear from under the nose of Robin van Persie after the striker had momentarily raced clear on to Diaby’s clever clip forward.
However Villa were still in control and attacking in waves. One ended with Manuel Almunia tipping over the bar from Luke Young’s deflected drive. Another, in the 20th minute, saw the Spaniard save sharply from Gabriel Agbonlahor but the ball ran loose to Sidwell. Only a braveheart challenge from Gallas saw his shot deflect wide. It seemed only a matter of time until Arsenal went behind.
That time nearly arrived in the 35th minute James Milner ghosted in at the far post to meet a floated crossfield ball from Ashley Young. The former Leeds midfielder slid his shot onto the post and the ball bounced back into the grateful arms of the prostrate Almunia.
Two minutes later Villa would hit the woodwork again. This time it was Curtis Davies, who sent an arching right-foot shot onto the top of the bar from just outside the area.
The Arsenal goal was now starting to live a charmed life but, on 40 minutes and just to prove fairy tales can happen, the visitors scored.
The goal was all Denilson’s own work. He robbed Nigel Reo-Coker 10 yards outside the area then darted forward to beat Sidwell and clip the ball past the advancing Brad Friedel.
The 20-year-old raced to the Arsenal fans did a samba to celebrate his fourth goal of the season. It was pretty surreal given the previous 39 minutes.
But, at this point, it looked like it was simply not Villa’s day. That feeling only intensified two minutes before the break when Agbonlahor beat Almunia to a cross from Reo-Coker. The floating ball looked certain to drop into the unguarded net but Sagna roared back and flung himself goalward. His overhead kick cleared just before it crossed the line.
The whistle blew seconds later and Villa went into the dressing room scratching their heads at the scoreline – who could blame them?
Three minutes after the break, Arsenal would add to their confusion. Diaby’s backflick sent Eboue sprinting clear on the right but the Frenchman did not stand and admire his work. He hared forward and caught the Ivorian just in time to receive a return pass. Diaby thumped home an angled drive fromeight yards.
Suddenly Arsenal had all the swagger.
They should have gained a third in the 56th minute when Aaron Ramsey, who had replaced Song just before the break, squared a pass to Van Persie at the far post. The Dutchman sent a sidefoot shot against the inside of the post and his follow up was snaffled behind.
Gallas guided a header across goal from the corner and, just before the hour, Eboue had a goal-bound shot blocked.
Arsenal were starting to canter now but their heels would be clipped in the 64th minute. Milner sent Agbonlahor through in the right-hand channel and Gallas felled the striker five yards from the byline. Referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot and Barry dispatched his third Premier League goal from the penalty spot.
Villa had come into the game as the Premier League’s counter-puncher but now they had to chase the game. They asked interesting questions of the Arsenal defence but this was an evening when Wenger’s men seemed to have all the answers.
They were not necessarily eloquent – Wenger brought on Clichy in midfield and Arsenal were happy to run the ball into the corner – but it seemed to be enough.
In fact it wasn’t.
The fourth official has just raised his board when Knight – up front for his nuisance factor alone – thumped home a knockdown from just outside the area.
It was sickener for Arsenal after a rollercoaster of a game.
Before Denilson’s opener much of the travelling support would have snatched at the opportunity to take home a point but, at the final whistle, it felt like a thumping defeat.
Arsenal stay fifth in the Premier League and urgently need a victory.
Referee: Lee Mason
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