By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal began the 2013/14 Premier League season in deeply-disappointing fashion when they slipped to a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
A pair of debatable penalties did the damage. Christian Benteke missed the first in the 22nd minute but headed home the rebound. While Wojciech Szczesny certainly brought down Gabriel Agbonlahor, the issue was whether it should have been given after Andreas Weimann had hit the sidenetting after advantage had been played.
As for the second on the hour, replays suggested Laurent Koscielny had won the ball from Agbonlahor. The Frenchman was booked for that challenge and would receive a second yellow soon afterwards.
Oliver Giroud had given Arsenal the lead after only six minutes and the visitors would need a couple of fine saves from Brad Guzan to keep them ahead in the latter stages.
However, four minutes from time, Antonio Luna’s breakaway strike consigned the home team to their first opening-day defeat since the 1-0 reverse at Sunderland in 2000.
So an unhappy curtain-raiser certainly but Arsenal have no time to feel sorry for themselves as they have a crucial Champions League qualifier at Fenerbahce on Wednesday.
They will need a quick response.
Emirates Stadium looked splendid on the morning of the game. A new season always plants butterflies in the belly but it was different this year. There were more questions surrounding the top teams and, as a result, the title race seemed more open. In fact, at his pre-match press conference, Wenger had suggested six teams could take the crown - including his own.
The Frenchman’s opening team selection was pretty much as expected. The thigh injury suffered by Mikel Arteta meant Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey occupied the defensive positions in midfield with Tomas Rosicky further forward. Santi Cazorla had been to Ecuador in midweek on international duty so he began on the bench. He was joined there by Lukas Podolski and new signing Yaya Sanogo.
Arsenal had been impressive in pre-season but, with the manager still searching for reinforcements, they needed a fast start.
They got one.
Within six minutes, Wilshere’s trickery allowed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to dart down the left and, with the outside of his foot, curled a low cross to the near post where Giroud swept home.
Arsenal took the goal in their fluent stride and looked to kick on. They attacked with ingenuity but the only chance they created was when Wilshere crossed from the left and Giroud could not generate sufficient power on his header to convert.
Up to this point, Villa had been lively enough but threatened only sporadically. Midway through the first half, they would be level.
Agbonlahor flicked the ball between Koscielny’s legs and prodded it past Szczesny and was brought him down by the keeper. Referee Anthony Taylor played the advantage but, when Weimann hit the sidenetting, still pointed to the spot.
Szczesny saved from Benteke but the Villa striker beat the keeper to the high bouncing rebound to nod home.
There would be more disturbance to come for Arsenal. Kieran Gibbs clashed heads as he went for a high ball with Weimann. He went down with blood oozing from his forehead. In the end he was stretchered off and Jenkinson came on at right back with Sagna switching flanks.
Arsenal recovered as the break came closer. Walcott robbed keeper on the byeline but could not find a team-mate in the area.
But, at the other end, Szczesny failed to clear his lines and, after racing back, had to make an acrobatic save from Ashley Westwood’s long-range effort.
At the break, the game was level in every respect.
Just before the whistle, Oxlade-Chamberlain had slid into a 50-50 with Luna. Both men needed treatment but it was the Englishman who did not come out after the restart. Cazorla was the replacement.
Again, Arsenal made the better start. Walcott clipped the ball to Giroud 10 yards out but the Frenchman was smothered as he tried to bring the ball down.
Seconds later, the defence opened up for Rosicky but he curled his effort over the bar from the edge of the area.
Villa’s response would be quicker - and nearly decisive. Fabian Delph’s low drive beat Szczesny but cannoned off the base of his left-hand post and rolled along the goalmouth.
Worse was the come. In the 62nd minute, Cazorla was robbed in midfield by Agbonlahor, who used his pace to go on the outside of Koscielny and into the area.
The Frenchman slid in and appeared to get a boot on the ball. Referee Taylor saw it differently and Benteke sent Szczesny the wrong way.
Koscielny had picked up a card for that challenge. When he clipped Weimann a couple of minutes later, he saw red.
A game that had found its spark midway through the first half was now on fire.
The Emirates crowd felt both penalty decisions were doubtful; the first given the advantage played, the second in its entirety.
Losing a man just rubbed salt in the wound.
Rosicky nearly started the recovery by weaving past two players, exchanging passes with Giroud and darting into the area. Guzan made a fine stop.
The American then excelled himself by swatting a point-blank shot from Cazorla against his own bar.
Those saves would be a crucial contribution as, with four minutes left, Luna raced clear to bury a third. The ball beat Szczesny and then bounced off the base of the post before nestling in the net.
It had been that sort of day for Arsenal.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
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