Football: Villa revival rocks Arsenal

OUTCLASSED BY Arsenal and trailing to two consummate finishes by Dennis Bergkamp, Aston Villa roared back into a three-point lead in the Premiership yesterday after an extraordinary fight-back culminating in Dion Dublin's winner with seven minutes remaining.

In a contest which had virtually everything - including, sadly, serious injuries to an RAF parachutist in a Father Christmas outfit who hit the stand roof during the interval "entertainment" - Villa appeared to be facing a third defeat in five matches when Bergkamp doubled his tally for the season in the space of 31 first-half minutes.

John Gregory's reaction to adversity was typically bold. Early in the second half the Villa manager sent on a third attacker, Stan Collymore, and went to four at the back. Within 10 minutes the champions had been pegged back to parity by Julian Joachim and Dublin. The coup de grace, administered by the former Coventry striker as Arsenal surprisingly buckled under pressure, was no more than the home side deserved.

Arsenal, whose run of five League matches without a win is their worst sequence for three years, were understandably rattled by the end. They had arrived boasting the division's best defensive record, having kept nine clean sheets and let in only seven goals in 16 games. They had not conceded more than one in any Premiership fixture, so Villa's three in 20 minutes must have been hard to stomach.

A further measure of Villa's achievement can be gauged from the fact that - with the exception of a 4-0 loss at Liverpool in May when the newly crowned champions were on cruise-control - Arsenal's goal had not been breached three times in exactly a year. After the last occasion, Blackburn's 3-1 success at Highbury, they embarked on a decisive 18-match unbeaten charge, though it may be asking too much for history to repeat itself.

As for Villa, they are actually better off at the end of their series of three games in nine days against what Gregory calls "the big hitters" (Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal) than they were at the start. Nevertheless, Gregory's post-match comments indicated that no one would be resting on their laurels.

"Our second-half performance left me speechless," he said, "but I was also speechless at half-time, too. We played with a total lack of conviction in the first half. Even if the second half was the stuff of schoolboy dreams it doesn't lessen that disappointment."

Arsene Wenger, describing defeat as a "huge disappointment", argued that the key to Villa's transformation was their "more physical" approach after the interval. "They started to win the fights and we had problems getting the ball down to pass it around," the Arsenal manager said.

Wenger continued: "Them playing three up-front should have been a plus for us. It ought to have made more space, but we gave the ball away too easily and didn't defend well as a team. You have to be realistic - at the moment we're not title contenders."

Such an admission had seemed implausible at half-time. Bergkamp, stirring from his post-World Cup weariness, gave Arsenal an early lead with a sweet diagonal volley from 16 yards after Nicolas Anelka and Fredrik Ljungberg had won headers against Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Barry, respectively.

On the stroke of half-time, following a succession of passes between himself and Anelka, Bergkamp rifled a first-time shot which gave Michael Oakes no chance from 12 yards.

Villa's recovery began shortly after the hour mark. Collymore played a significant part by feeding Lee Hendrie, who in turn rolled the ball square for Joachim to fire his fourth goal in as many games.

Within three minutes, Villa were level in controversial circumstances. Hendrie kicked out at Nelson Vivas under the nose of Stephen Lodge, only for the referee to wave play on. Within seconds, Dublin was lunging to steer in a miscued shot by the outstanding Alan Thompson from what Wenger claimed was an offside position.

When Arsenal's fabled defence fell for the final time it was to a sucker punch. Martin Keown missed a simple clearing header from Thompson's corner, allowing Dublin to volley his 12th Premiership goal before a delirious if disbelieving Holte End.

Goals: Bergkamp (14) 0-1; Bergkamp (45) 0-2, Joachim (62) 1-2, Dublin (65) 2-2, Dublin (83) 3-2.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry (Collymore, 54); Watson, Hendrie, Taylor, Thompson, Wright; Joachim (Grayson, 87), Dublin. Substitutes not used: Charles, Vassell, Ghent (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Vivas; Ljungberg (Grimandi, 68), Parlour (Boa Morte, 90), Vieira, Overmars; Bergkamp; Anelka. Substitutes not used: Wreh, Upson, Manninger (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Villa: Thompson, Wright, Southgate. Arsenal: Bergkamp, Ljungberg, Dixon.

Man of the match: Thompson.

Attendance: 39,217.