By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s pursuit of third place in the Premier League is now out of their hands.
A deeply disappointing 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium on Sunday means Manchester City will leapfrog Arsène Wenger’s side if they win their final two games.
Both teams are assured Champions League football next season but the third-place side will go straight in to the Group Stage while fourth place will have to take their chances in the Qualifying Round. It is a significant difference.
Villa grabbed the game in the opening 15 minutes. Arsenal were slow out of the blocks and Darren Bent scored twice. He volleyed in from Kyle Walker’s punt forward in the 12th minute and, shortly afterwards, slotted home after Ashley Young sent him clear.
Arsenal’s response might have been very different had Richard Dunne been penalised for clipping Aaron Ramsey in the area as he seemed set to score towards the end of the first half. The home side scrapped away in search of a goal but they have been struggling in recent games and, though they pressed back Villa, they could not find a way through until Robin van Persie prodded home in the last minute.
Injury time was frantic but fruitless. Arsenal must now rely on Manchester City to stumble in similar fashion in their final two games or they will face a busy start to the next campaign.
The main team news concerned the centre back position. Thomas Vermaelen started his first game after nine months out of the Arsenal side with an Achilles problem. His partner this afternoon was Sebastien Squillaci as Johan Djourou, who had been nursing his way through training since the Manchester United game with an ankle problem, was missing.
Laurent Koscielny had been ruled out with a thigh problem. Cesc Fabregas (thigh) and Samir Nasri (hamstring) had failed fitness tests on Saturday as neither appeared this afternoon. Youngsters Ignasi Miquel and Conor Henderson were named on the bench.
Arsenal had begun the day in third - three points behind Chelsea and two ahead of Manchester City in fourth. A late equaliser by Newcastle at Stamford Bridge in the early kick-off had given Wenger’s men a reasonable shout of second but, in reality, their main task in the final 180 minutes of the season was to secure third. However, this afternoon, they started slowly and would find themselves 2-0 by the quarter-hour.
The first came when Walker’s lofted pass was controlled and volleyed past Wojciech Szczesny with precision by Bent.
Four minutes later James Collins’ free-kick found Young. His marker, Vermaelen, slipped allowing the England winger to find Bent in space. He slotted home his ninth goal for Villa since a big-money move from Sunderland in January.
Emirates Stadium was stunned into silence while the Villa fans, who had been vocal in the opening stages anyway, cranked up the volume.
By the midway point of the half, Arsenal had started to stir. Villa had been much the better side in the opening 10 minutes and deserved their first. The second rubbed salt in the wound.
On the half-hour, referee Michael Oliver had to make a major call when Dunne felled Aaron Ramsey after the Welshman seemed set to pull the trigger 12 yards out. The defender certainly got the man, the question was whether he got the ball. Replays suggested it was 50:50 but, as we already knew, this was not looking like Arsenal’s day.
However the home side had finally found their feet. Van Persie and Bacary Sagna saw deflected shots fly wide. Then, in the 36th minute, the Dutchman weaved himself some space in the area before firing his cross-shot against the base of the far post. The move ended in a corner, which Vermaelen deposited just over the bar.
However, Arsenal’s head of steam rather blew itself out as half-time approached.
The home fans showed their displeasure as the teams went down the tunnel. Defeat this afternoon would mean Manchester City had third place in their hands.
Wenger's actions at the break suggested he was well aware. He withdrew Squillaci for Marouane Chamakh and pulled Alex Song into central defence.
However Villa nearly caught Arsenal cold once again. Bent burst through in the opening minutes with Vermaelen on his tail. Fortunately for Arsenal, the Villa striker blasted his hat-trick chance straight at Szczesny.
This time, however, Arsenal wrestled control of the game quickly. In the 56th minute, Van Persie set up Kieran Gibbs but Brad Freidel pulled off an excellent block from close range. On the hour, the Dutchman fired over and, just after replacing Andrey Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner set up Theo Walcott to stab a shot past the upright.
Ramsey fired over and Walcott saw a drive deflect wide. But in between Villa had a better opportunity when Stewart Downing thumped a near-post drive at Szczesny. The Pole held on at the second attempt.
Thirteen minutes from time, Arsenal seemed to have grabbed a lifeline when Chamakh headed home. But referee Oliver felt the Moroccan had pushed Walker in the build-up. Seconds later, Friedel made another fine save from the same player.
As we entered the final 10 minutes, desperation had set in. Arsenal were on the attack incessantly but those early goals had put Villa in a position to defend and threaten on the break. Excellent displays from the centre backs and keeper had snuffed out Arsenal’s response.
With a minute left, the home side finally broke through. Sagna’s cross was collected by Bendtner but then lost as he tried to weave through traffic in the area. However the ball fell to Van Persie, who prodded home his 21st goal of the season.
Arsenal threw the ball into the area in added time as they searched for the equaliser but the whistle seemed inevitable.
As a consequence, the team’s lap of appreciation to the fans was a little muted. This was an unhappy dénouement to the campaign at Emirates but in a way perhaps it was fitting because it was here, more than anywhere, that Arsenal’s title bid had faltered.
However at least there is Champions League football to saviour next season.
Referee: Michael Oliver
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