Arsenal 0 Aston Villa 2
Cautious reservations about Aston Villa’s prospects of breaking into the Premier League top four might have to be replaced with optimistic expectations if Martin O’Neill’s team continue defeating the rivals they are striving to oust.
The manager is remaining grounded, such is the paradox that is Villa at present that not even he knows precisely which version of his side will turn up on any given day – losing to Newcastle and Middlesbrough one week, beating Arsenal the next.
However, a convincing victory at the Emirates Stadium, fast becoming fertile ground for Villa, had O’Neill purring at the capabilities of his ambitious set of players.
It was not just the result which enabled Villa to depart north London with a swagger. It was the way the visitors systematically took apart an Arsenal side not renowned for being outplayed on their own patch.
Indeed, nostalgic Villa fans would have to go back to November 1993 to recall the last time their team won a league match on Gunners’ territory, a 2-1 victory at the old Highbury.
As O’Neill was keen to stress, however, this was not a fluke result. This was Villa continuing the huge strides they have made since the manager’s first game in charge, away at the Emirates, two seasons ago.
Villa had scraped a 1-1 draw and Arsene Wenger’s men did the scraping when their late equaliser ensured the same scoreline in the corresponding fixture last season.
Villa have come a long way since the inception of the O’Neill era and no-one epitomises their progress more than homegrown talent Gabriel Agbonlahor.
England head coach Fabio Capello has finally relented and included the Birmingham-born striker, along with team-mates Ashley Young, Curtis Davies and Gareth Barry, in his experimental squad to face Germany in a friendly in midweek. While Capello was at Upton Park rather than the Emirates on Saturday afternoon, the vocal acclaim Agbonlahor received from Villa’s jubilant travelling army of fans must surely have carried across the capital.
Agbonlahor, leading the line alone with John Carew left on the bench following a hip injury, played a part in both of Villa’s second-half goals.
It was his presence on the shoulder of Gael Clichy that hurried Arsenal’s French full-back into directing a clearing header past Manuel Almunia rather than to safety from Young’s probing ball on 70 minutes.
Although Agbonlahor could not claim sole credit for the opener, he was entitled to bask in the glory of the second goal which arrived 10 minutes later from a clinical counter-attack.
Wenger had his usual cause for complaint about a foul on Carlos Vela as Martin Laursen gained possession and cleared his lines with a hefty ball away from the edge of Villa’s area.
The Arsenal manager would be better off turning his frustrations towards creaking central defensive pair William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre who were left trailing by Agbonlahor’s acceleration. Agbonlahor cushioned the ball with his head before rifling a right-footed finish to Almunia’s left and into the bottom corner of the net.
Only when they were behind did Arsenal, whose awesome Emirates arena still has hallmarks of the subdued ‘Highbury Library’ when things are going against the home team, begin to put up a fight.
Substitute Emmanuel Adebayor added urgency to the Gunners’ lifeless attack and at 1-0 to Villa the Togo international was denied an equaliser when his header hit the angle of post and bar.
Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel kept Cesc Fabregas at bay late on as Arsenal pressed on a back four led masterfully by Laursen and Curtis Davies, who played the second half with a bandaged head after receiving five stitches in a head wound.
Friedel had reason to thank Davies for his bravery with the defender, whose season was prematurely ended by an Achilles tendon injury last season on the same ground, sparing the keeper’s blushes in the opening period.
From the Gunners’ only chance before the interval Friedel made a mess of a Fabregas strike from the edge of the area and Davies was hurt by Gallas as he desperately scrambled the ball away.
By half time Villa could, and should, have been comfortably in front. Young squandered their best opportunity with a weak penalty which was saved by Almunia on 19 minutes after the winger was fouled by Theo Walcott.
Villa’s regular penalty-taker Barry had been injured in the move that led to the spot kick, otherwise there might have been a different outcome, although to Young’s credit he almost made amends with several shots that came close.
Barry himself was guilty of a glaring miss when Agbonlahor set him up with a precise cutback from the byline only for the midfielder to find Almunia’s arms. It mattered not, however, because an inconsistent yet brilliant Villa team, recently humbled by the division’s lesser lights, managed a landmark victory against a Premier League super-power.