Football: Arsenal lose their grip

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Arsenal. . . .0

Aston Villa. .1

FOLLOWING Wrexham, and after 22 months and 25 ties, Arsenal have finally met their match in cup competition, Aston Villa prising their hold from the Coca-Cola trophy that was the first of last season's unique Highbury double with a performance last night of quality and steel.

No question, the Midlanders fully deserved their place in the quarter-final and should have given themselves a wide enough margin to live more comfortably amid the final frenetic moments when Mark Bosnich saved excellently from Steve Morrow and Paul Davis. On his 49th birthday, the Arsenal manager, George Graham, was dealt no favours by his defenders who were pulled apart at will and with the Premiership bauble receding further over the horizon his range of potential silverware is severely diminished.

Three weeks before, Villa had claimed a scarcely deserved victory through a goal in injury time. This time the damage came early, the winning platform constructed while Steve Bould and Martin Keown were still attempting to build an effective partnership in the continued absence of Tony Adams.

Dalian Atkinson's square pass to Dean Saunders on the 18-yard line was returned too smartly for their leaden markers, who were always floundering as Atkinson moved to meet it and poked a shot beneath David Seaman after only four minutes.

It was a potent combination that the holders never came to grips with and only their failure to add to the scoreline denied them a thoroughly satisfying night's work. Several times they engineered the opening only to find David Seaman barring the roads to goal while a pair of offside flags also cut short celebrations.

Just before the interval, Seaman fell at Atkinson's feet and again at the start of the second half his legs denied Saunders, who had been presented with a glorious one-on-one opportunity. Bould was badly at fault, allowing Kevin Richardson's pass to escape him, a dangerous habit that first befell him on 28 minutes which saw Saunders much more wasteful.

Even with Morrow, their Cup-winning hero last April, starting his first cup encounter since breaking his arm when the Wembley celebrations went over the top, the Gunners could not bring a change to the pattern which saw Villa counter-attacking with impressive conviction and pace, easily outmanoeuvring their opponents in midfield.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon (Davis, 71), Bould, Keown, Winterburn; McGoldrick, Jensen (Campbell, 71), Morrow, Merson; Wright, Smith. Substitute not used: Miller (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Cox, McGrath, Barratt, Teale; Houghton, Richardson, Parker, Townsend; Saunders (Daley, 90), Atkinson. Substitutes not used: Whittingham, Spink (gk).

Referee: R Gifford (Mid-Glamorgan).

(Photograph omitted)