Football: Arsenal fall to earth: Wright is on target at last but Townsend's last-minute winner sends Gunners into a tail-spin

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The Independent Online
Arsenal. . . .1

Aston Villa. .2

IAN WRIGHT, who missed Arsenal's rare scoring spree in Liege on Wednesday, returned yesterday to score his club's first goal in seven and a half hours of Premiership football. But he found his breakthrough was in vain when Aston Villa, whose own midweek efforts in Europe had brought nothing but embarrassment to their manager, devised first an unexpected equaliser and then, in the last seconds of play, a goal that kept them level with Norwich City in second place. It also condemned the home side to end their run of four goalless draws with their first defeat at Highbury since the opening day of the season.

'Frankly, we mugged them,' Ron Atkinson said, and the look on George Graham's face was certainly that of a victim still in shock. Andy Townsend's winner was so late it almost missed the five o'clock reading of the results. Injuries to David Seaman and Townsend himself had lengthened the first half by almost 10 minutes, and the Villa midfielder's goal came in the last minute of play, when the home fans had already been whistling for several minutes.

Atkinson insisted that he had not enjoyed the experience; too much bad football from both sides, he thought. Graham disagreed. 'In entertainment terms,' he said, 'it was the best we've played at home this season'; and there were times - in fact just about every time Wright had the ball - when Arsenal looked as though they might have ambitions to top their seven-goal festival in midweek. But the England striker saw his 43rd-minute penalty kick beaten away by Mark Bosnich - his third such save in three attempts this season - after Wright had been brought down by Shaun Teale, and then failed to capitalise on half a dozen second-half chances.

There had, in fact, been very little entertainment until the 13th minute of the second half, when Wright took Martin Keown's pass, spun away from Teale and fired a superb left- foot shot just inside the left- hand post. By this time, Nigel Spink had taken over from Bosnich, who had bruised his hip in making the penalty save and may have put himself out of Australia's World Cup eliminator in Buenos Aires next week as a result.

Atkinson's second substitution brought Villa back into the game. Guy Whittingham, with only one goal to his name after his move from Portsmouth in the summer, came on for the ineffective Ray Houghton. Whittingham's presence gave Villa more power up front and a more effective shape overall, but there had been no time to appreciate such subtleties when he ran on to Dalian Atkinson's lethal through ball and, with his first touch of the afternoon, shot home past Seaman off both posts.

For the last 20 minutes Villa matched Arsenal chance for chance. When John Jensen volleyed wide of Spink's left-hand post, Tony Daley shot narrowly over Seaman's bar. When Whittingham side-footed Daley's pass wide from five yards, Kevin Campbell could not manage to get enough downforce on his header from Anders Limpar's cross.

Limpar had been just about the only consistent creative force on either side in a first half that was full of hustle and bustle, all Villa's concentration going on closing Arsenal down, with very little attention paid to opening them up. But, as a rather perplexed Atkinson said afterwards, by the end just about everybody was playing well. Teale's last-ditch tackle to deprive Wright of a clear shot on the edge of the six-yard box deep into injury time seemed likely to provide a perfect summary of the match until, seconds later, Whittingham and Dean Saunders combined to send Townsend in for the shot that settled the match.

Despite his penalty miss, Wright looked sharp enough for England's needs in Bologna next week, while Seaman said his bruised ankle would recover in time to make the trip. Their manager added a curious postscript with an appeal for a return to all-black uniforms by the referee and linesmen. His players, he said, had been confused by the similarity between the officials' green shirts and black shorts and Villa's strip, but appeals both before the start and during half-time had fallen on deaf ears. 'It's time for a return to black,' he said, but that may just have been his five o'clock mood on a day when he had hoped for something better to place before Highbury's biggest crowd of the season.