Football: Saunders punishes Arsenal

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Arsenal. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

DEAN SAUNDERS' first goal in the Premier League for two months hoisted Villa into third place in the table, just one win behind the leaders, on a night when plunging temperatures may well have seen Arsenal's title aspirations put into cold storage for another year.

Surprisingly, Saunders' penalty was the first Villa had scored for 16 months. Less unexpectedly, given Arsenal's disintegrating form, it left the pre-season favourites for the championship with two points from a possible 21.

Without a win since 7 November, their deterioration has been such that they will travel to Yeovil for Saturday's FA Cup tie in apprehension rather than expectation. The non-League side with the proud Cup tradition are sure to fancy their chances - as will Scarborough, who entertain Arsenal in the Coca-Cola Cup the following Wednesday.

George Graham accepted that his team had got what they deserved. He said that apart from their 3-0 defeat at Leeds, 'this was the only time we have been turned over comprehensively this season'.

Ron Atkinson had described Villa's 3-0 loss at Coventry on Boxing Day as the worst performance of his managership, and the result had taken on an even more worrying perspective when Manchester United demolished the same opposition 5-0 yesterday afternoon.

United having broken into a gallop, neither of last night's teams could afford to waste any more time about regaining lost momentum. Villa it was who got back into their stride, winning more convincingly than the scoreline would suggest.

Arsenal tried everything, from a five-man defence to a four-man midfield featuring a centre-half, two wingers and a striker, but they were second-best throughout.

Arriving with one goal in six matches, Graham might have been expected to shake up his front line. Instead he chopped and changed behind them. Plan A was to drop John Jensen and Mark Flatts and revert to the sweeper system which had done sterling service in the championship years of 1989 and 1991.

When the wheels came off, with Saunders' penalty, Plans B, C and D became increasingly desperate, culminating in the deployment of O'Leary, Flatts, Limpar and Campbell in a midfield which had all the balance of Cyril Smith on ice.

In the absence of the suspended Tony Adams, O'Leary was given his first start of the season as sweeper - a formation in which he was immaculate until his sliding challenge on Dwight Yorke conceded the decisive penalty, in stoppage time at the end of the first half.

Villa recalled Stephen Froggatt, out since mid-October with knee- trouble, and the young winger was central to the positive start which brought his team an initiative they were never to lose.

They should have led after three minutes, when Steve Staunton's through-pass enabled Yorke to set up Ray Houghton, whose shot from 10 yards brought an impressive save from David Seaman.

Arsenal sent on first Flatts, in place of Ray Parlour, and then Limpar for David Hillier but it was Villa who continued to dominate and only another stunning save prevented them from going further ahead, 10 minutes into the second half. Saunders, released by Houghton, did everything right and clapped his hands to his head in disbelief when Seaman threw up his right arm to repel the shot.

Ian Wright might have burgled a point right at the death, with 93 minutes on the stopwatch, but Nigel Spink plucked the ball out of the air, and a travesty was avoided.

Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Yorke, Froggatt (Cox, 74). Substitutes not used: Beinlich, Bosnich (gk).

Arsenal: Seaman; Lydersen, Winterburn, Hillier (Limpar, 86), Bould, Linighan, O'Leary, Wright, Smith, Campbell, Parlour (Flatts, h/t). Substitute not used: Miller (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (Looe).