Football: Majesty in the mud makes case for Wenger's optimism

Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 3

ARSENE WENGER responded to Arsenal's most imperious display since Villa were vanquished by the same score in October with brutal honesty about the failure to defend their Premiership title and defiant optimism about their capacity to keep pace with wealthier rivals.

A reassuring performance at the end of a deflating week told Wenger that his players still have the desire to repeat, or even improve upon, the achievements of recent years. Arsenal's majesty in the mud, particularly in the first half, was a powerful reiteration of the commitment of players such as Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry.

However, the confessional tone of their manager's comments made it clear that the manner of the home defeat by Manchester United prompted soul- searching at Highbury.

"Earlier this season we were on a high, and won games by scores like 5-4 and 4-2," Wenger recalled. "We lost a little discipline and sharpness defensively. We got into bad habits which, when you aren't scoring as often, can become very costly."

The Frenchman added: "Just because we play in a flamboyant manner, it is not inevitable that we lose discipline at the back. We managed 49 games unbeaten playing like that. But game after game, when you go undefeated, it creeps in. They needed a shock to get it back again."

At Villa Park, it looked as if United's second, shattering victory over his side had delivered just such a jolt. But however well they play against a mid-table team shorn of key personnel, Wenger is aware Arsenal will ultimately be judged on how they match up to United and Chelsea.

"We cannot compete financially with them, so we have to find a way to compete by bringing in younger players and giving them time to mature. It's a new challenge for me and the players, but we can still compete with United and Chelsea. United are a massive financial institution. In the same year they bought [Louis] Saha, [Wayne] Rooney and [Alan] Smith. That's pounds 50m just on offensive players. But I feel there is always a way to compete. It will be in a different way, but we can do it."

Arsenal were precisely the "wounded animal" of which the Villa manager, David O'Leary, had warned. Their football was as fluid as any Premiership team can have played this season. Vieira was clearly happier with Edu's physical presence alongside him. Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp were at the top of their game.

Very quickly it was 3-0 going on six or seven. Ljungberg scored deftly from Edu's pass; Henry's first goal since Boxing Day came when Vieira played him in; and Ashley Cole volleyed a sumptuous third after Henry's strength and Bergkamp's skill set up the chance.

O'Leary felt his side "could have made life harder for them". At half- time the former Highbury defender had to ask his players if they were in awe of Arsenal; whether they felt they should be on the same pitch. Juan Pablo Angel clawed a goal back in an improved second half by Villa, but the returning Jens Lehmann and makeshift central-defensive pairing of Pascal Cygan and Philippe Senderos were seldom tested.

"It made me laugh when I heard it was a good time to meet Arsenal," said O'Leary. "I've played in midweek defeats, and the big sides with the big players know that you have to bounce back straight away."

Goals: Ljungberg (11) 0-1; Henry (14) 0-2; A Cole (28) 0-3; Angel (74) 1-3.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel (Hitzlsperger, 63); Solano, Davis, Djemba-Djemba (Berson, 66), Barry; Angel, L Moore. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), C Cole, Laursen.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Senderos, Cygan, A Cole; Ljungberg, Edu (Flamini, 74), Vieira, Reyes (Fabregas, 82); Bergkamp (Pires, 74), Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Hoyte.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Aston Villa: Samuel, Djemba-Djemba.

Man of the match: Vieira.

Attendance: 42,593.

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