Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 1
Martin O'Neill's 56th birthday is likely to be one he will never forget. His gift from Arsenal - a 27th-minute own-goal from Philippe Senderos - was cruelly snatched away less than 30 seconds from time.
He also had to endure seeing talented centre-back Curtis Davies stretchered off with a ruptured Achilles tendon which could see him miss the rest of the season.
Yet it was not all despondency for Villa as his valiant young braves battled to contain an Arsenal side who are no longer run-away certainties in the race for the Barclays Premier League title.
Instead, all eyes were on O'Neill's rampant Villa who, although now on the brink of an injury crisis, produced the kind of display which will finally have the sceptics sitting up and taking notice.
On this performance, they have finally proved that they have what it takes to challenge with the big boys and were most unfortunate not to take their first Arsenal scalp in North London for 15 years.
Prior to this encounter in the impressive Emirates Stadium, O'Neill had been bullish, daring to suggest last week that his youngsters were going to Arsenal in buoyant mood and really believing they could beat Arsene Wenger's side.
His players did not disappoint, taking the league leaders to within a few seconds of their first defeat on home soil this season.
O'Neill chose to play the same side who had defeated Reading six days earlier, with Stiliyan Petrov still rested and Olof Mellberg failing to get over an ankle injury.
Instead, Shaun Maloney kept his place in midfield with Craig Gardner remaining at right back in a line-up which must have caught the eye of watching England manager Fabio Capello - the back of the Arsenal matchday programme highlighted each squad player's nationality and, as far as players eligible to play for England go, it read Arsenal 4, Aston Villa 14.
Among those hoping to remind Capello of their presence was Villa goalkeeper Scott Carson, who did his case no harm with a fantastic one-handed save from another potential England recruit - Arsenal's Theo Walcott - just six minutes into the match.
Gabriel Agbonlahor will also have impressed with his lightning pace as he set up Senderos's inadvertent goal while Villa skipper Gareth Barry - whose appearance in an England shirt is almost nailed on these days - ran the midfield magnificently even after losing his right-hand man, Nigel Reo-Coker, with a back injury before half-time.
Once again, Birmingham-born Craig Gardner proved he is more than able to step in at right back when required, while Zat Knight won his place back in the centre of defence, although he later insisted there was no joy in returning to the side at the expense of the unfortunate Davies.
The defender last night underwent an operation on his damaged Achilles tendon and now faces a long battle back to fitness.
Wenger later blamed his side's innocuous start on injury and the trauma of last week's damage to Eduardo but there was to be no sympathy from O'Neill's men.
'Get well' messages flashed up around the LED boards around the stadium but Villa had come to take no prisoners and were soon putting Arsenal to the sword as they pursued their 12th match unbeaten.
Agbonlahor led the charge and, although Arsenal had done their homework on him and had him man-marked by up to two players at a time, the youngster regularly managed to cut a swathe through the Gunners' defence.
And apart from Walcott, Arsenal really gave Carson little to do in the first half, which was just as well as O'Neill was forced to change his line up time and again due to injuries to his paper-thin squad.
Villa were to field as many right-backs in this match as they have fielded all season but whether it was Gardner or Davies covering the flank, Arsenal struggled to find the finishing touch which had elevated them to the position of league leaders.
After Senderos' error, fans might have thought the Gunners would have upped the ante and, within minutes of the restart, Carson was again saving from Walcott but this time he was only able to parry the ball as far as Alexander Hleb, who fired it back woefully wide.
In the 54th minute, Ashley Young went on one of his searing runs only to see his shot saved by Manuel Almunia before Niklas Bendtner, who had replaced Abou Diaby just before the hour, was firing a free kick-high over the bar. In the 65th minute, Carson denied Gael Clichy after he had Barry beaten before the action again switched to the other end as Agbonlahor drew another save from Almunia.
Marlon Harewood - Villa's impact player of late - once again caused mayhem when he entered the fray in the 71st minute, but could not quite find the killer touch he has been able to conjure in recent matches.
John Carew, who had had a relatively quiet day in front of goal by his standards, was now working hard in defence as Wenger's men surged forward in search of that equaliser.
A double substitution in the 78th minute with Flamini and Senderos replaced by Brazilians Gilberto and Denilson proved a last attempt by Arsenal to salvage something but still they could not break down Villa's resilient defence, run by man of the match Martin Laursen.
As the clock ticked down, it looked as if the Gunners' would never score and their own supporters appeared to recognise that as they began filtering from the stadium. But as fourth official Andy D'Urso signalled three minutes of additional time, every last Arsenal man was thrown forward.
Gone now was the world-class passing; instead, this was pure panic as the Gunners threw everything forward. Yet still Villa hung on, clearing the ball time and again, but as Martin O'Neill looked to the referee to signal time there was former Birmingham City loanee Bendtner to fire the ball home from six yards.
It was ironic that he had found himself in space when the defence had done their job so admirably. It was a cruel blow for Villa but one O'Neill will hope his young side will learn from, as they press on in their mission to be this season's surprise European contenders.
Scorers: Senderos (og, 27) 0-1, Bendtner (90) 1-1.
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Senderos (Denilson, 78), Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini (Gilberto, 78), Diaby (Bendtner, 59); Adebayor, Walcott. Subs: Lehmann, Hoyte.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Carson; Gardner, Laursen, Davies (Osbourne, 40), Bouma; Maloney (Harewood, 71), Barry, Reo-Coker (Knight, 32) Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Subs: Taylor, Salifou.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear).
Booking: Arsenal - Gallas (foul).