Darren Bent’s two fine goals brought about a superb away victory at The Emirates for Aston Villa. This win also finally puts to bed any chance that the club can be relegated and surely draws to a close (almost) one of the most bizarre seasons in living memory.
Optimism was limited going into the match given recent form and Villa’s team-sheet was met with some concern. Stand in boss Gary McAllister had opted to assume a potentially risky attack minded line up. This had many Villa fans wondering if it was time to start digging the trenches. However the selection choice came off superbly against an Arsenal team looking devoid of the quality they once boasted. And indeed one wondered as the full time whistle blew whether they remain amongst the true elite of English football.
Villa started excellently. The surprise inclusion of the injury plagued Fabian Delph added welcome pace and youthful exuberance between the experience of Petrov and the immense presence of Reo-Coker. The opening exchanges revealed startlingly that Arsene Wenger had expected us to turn up and roll over. And as Arsenal struggled to get a foothold, Villa struck.
Kyle Walker, whose form was kind enough to re-appear for the clash, chipped a delicate ball towards Bent who was preying amongst the Arsenal defence. The pass split the centre halves in two. Incisive and perfectly weighted, it was miraculously controlled by Bent whom somehow finished past the flailing Arsenal goalkeeper. The goal was nothing short of staggering and further underlines the value that the striker has been since his arrival. And when one truly reflects not just on those goals but their calibre, as fans we should feel fortunate that he wears claret and blue.
Barely able to catch your breathe, Villa’s impressive start soon became nothing short of extraordinary in a season of cataclysmic failure.
Collins drove the ball to the feet of Ashley Young who quickly span and delivered a perfect pass for Bent to run onto. Once again he finished with consummate ease, first time past the Arsenal goalkeeper. Arsenal were stunned, Villa fans were jubilant and as stunned. If you listened really closely the sound of a pedestal could be heard breaking.
The remainder of the half rarely came to life thereafter, Villa enjoyed their dominent position, and this was welcome considering its rarity this year. Aside from Arsenal’s dismal showing the next item of note was the apathy of the home crowd. Fewer in numbers than normal and virtually silent throughout, it would seem that the aura surrounding a once great team is fading as much as its players.
Arsenal played like a team unsure of itself. Whilst they are a team of good players, they never showed anything gifted enough to warrant the suggestion that they are on the cusp of greatness. And perhaps this self bestowed arrogance is now to be their downfall. For all of the iconic references to their successes, that team has long since gone and their replacements are but a mere shadow. The likes of Wilshere, Song, Bentner and even the petulant Van Persie would not be fit to clean the boots of Henry, Viera, Pires and Overmars in their heyday. And the Arsenal board see fit to inflict a 6% increase in ticket prices upon their true supporters? The word “delusional” springs to mind.
Arsenal no longer scare teams, with their fiddly, needlessly complicated and frankly dull approach to winning matches. It would drive me to insanity watching constant build up play in the knowledge that it is going nowhere. And this is precisely what Villa exploited – for watching Arsenal holding the ball in the middle third of the pitch is quite acceptable.
The next talking point of the match came when Aaron Ramsey was denied a penalty by the referee. Ramsey took the ball down in the Villa box, Dunne put himself in between the player and the ball, Ramsey kicked Dunne and fell over, Friedel collected. The referee, bravely, and correctly waved play on. The Arsenal fans wailed and shouted their displeasure at not being gifted a way back into the match, the men in claret and blue continued to play the game.
And it did seem like men against boys. Reo-Coker let Wilshere know just how good he was, a rough challenge aside, Coker completely nulled his impact upon the game. The Villa back line, often dodgy in its defending is at least manly about how it goes about it. The mere physical presence of Dunne, Collins and the combative Luke Young saw Van Whiney have a relatively quiet showing.
Van Persie’s best chance of the match came after a ball over the top enabled him to get free. Cutting back as the Villa defence attempted to shepherd him, the Dutchman fired across goal and struck the outside right post. Scares come as part of following the Villa, and whilst a major let off, the Dutchman missing suggested the bells were ringing.
Villa went in at half time comfortable and reflecting on two fantastic strikes from Bent. How refreshing?
The second half saw Villa sit deeper. This is never generally a good idea, but was a clever tactic in the knowledge that Arsenal would pass the ball sideways for 45 minutes. Now, this is often spun by some as Arsenal “overplaying” when in fact this couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed the lack of invention from the home team, in need of a win to prevent Champions League play offs, was stunning in itself.
Arsenal’s lack of true quality showed after they finally found themselves bearing down on goal. Kieran Gibbs’ close range strike was expertly saved by the experienced Friedel. Would a young Ashley Cole have missed such an opportunity? The game now had the feeling of being Villa’s to lose.
Villa left camp occasionally to foray forward and club player of the year Downing impressed for most of the afternoon. Downing has represented a hidden quality for Villa, with most overlooking his work rate and much improved delivery of a final ball. Another redeeming feature of Downing is his desire to take on a shot, an attribute that a number of Villa players seem utterly intent on avoiding. After a pacey break from Ashley Young who saw his low drive parried, Downing did well to control and cut inside before delivering a tasty low shot that almost squired into the net. The only other chance of the half came from Bent who saw a speculative long range drive sail over the bar.
Arsenal had a goal correctly disallowed for a blatant shove on Walker and Villa seemed destined for a first away clean sheet since Hull in 2010. However such records exist for a reason, principally our inability to defend anything off the ground delivered into the box. Arsenal crossed from the right, Collins missed his header, and a goalmouth scramble ensued. The ball bobbled, ricochet and found its way to Van Persie to stab home from all of 3 yards. Ultimately poor defending but there was also a great deal of chance involved in it falling at the feet of the Gunners top scorer.
And then four minutes of stoppage time. In which the home team offered little to inspire their supporters to renew their season tickets. The cost of failure is seemingly ever more expensive.
As the full time whistle blew a sense of renewed optimism could be felt amongst the Villa faithful. After such a difficult and at times bizarre few weeks following Aston Villa, the club had delivered a fine victory alongside a determined performance. And that has to be viewed as a major positive to hold onto.
Whatever next week and indeed next season holds, the club needs to reflect upon performances like today and work to instil that as the benchmark. The final game of the season sees Liverpool visit Villa Park, a poorer team than Arsenal and a club with whom we should also seek to regain our competitiveness against.