Arsène Wenger substituted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain again yesterday, a week after he was jeered for replacing the youngster against Manchester United. This time the home support cheered, and not just because it was Thierry Henry coming on rather than Andrei Arshavin. Arsenal fans would have cheered Wenger even if he had brought the Gunnersaurus mascot on to play in goal, so delirious with joy were they after this stunning comeback.
Booed off at half-time after conceding twice in 10 minutes, to Richard Dunne and Darren Bent, Arsenal rolled back the years after the break. Robin van Persie scored two penalties either side of a Theo Walcott goal in a whirlwind seven minutes. The change in mood at the Emirates was as stark as night and day, and Arsenal will hope this proves the catalyst for a better second half to their season.
The need to lift the gloom that has enveloped the Emirates this year was visible on the team-sheet. The early rounds of the FA Cup competition used to be regarded by Wenger as a bridge between the Carling Cup team and the first-choice XI. Now, as the trophy-less years stretch towards seven, they are steps on the route to redemption and, aside from a change of Pole in goal, Wenger chose the strongest available side. The FA Cup's enhanced priority was underlined by the inclusion of Van Persie. That was revealing.
Arsenal want to win the FA Cup but they need to qualify for the Champions League. Van Persie's fragile body is the most likely means of doing so and it was assumed he would be rested. Bacary Sagna and Mikel Arteta, just returning to fitness, were on the bench.
Aston Villa had their own desires, aspirations and heritage. Unlike their hosts, Villa have won the European Cup and have seven league titles and seven FA Cups. But the last of the latter was in 1957, when Peter McParland scored twice after leaving the Manchester United goalkeeper Ray Wood unconscious with a broken cheekbone from a challenge that would draw a red card today.
Alex McLeish knows that cup runs can affect league form. Last season his Birmingham City team collapsed so badly after beating Arsenal in the Carling Cup final that they were relegated. But he was also aware that nothing would win over a Villa support that has yet to warm to him other than taking them to their first Wembley final in 12 years. So he too chose the best available XI.
With the fifth-round draw made before the match both sides knew the "prize", away to Boro or Sunderland. Not the greatest of incentives but there was plenty of early intent, especially from Arsenal with Shay Given having to turn away a stinging free-kick from Thomas Vermaelen and Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain shooting wide after bright runs.
But McLeish's Villa are a counter-punching unit, as Martin O'Neill's were, and Arsenal are the perfect opponents. After a couple of promising breaks had come to naught Villa forced a corner. Stiliyan Petrov and Robbie Keane worked it short and Dunne rose above Laurent Koscielny at the far post to head in Keane's cross.
Ten minutes later, into injury time, Villa broke again. Petrov fed Stephen Ireland who released Bent and, though Lucasz Fabianski saved his first shot, Bent slid home the rebound from a tight angle. Then the whistle went and Arsenal walked off to a chorus of boos.
Wenger's stock was plunging as fast as the mercury, but his words to the team at half-time had an electrifying effect. Arsenal came out and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, penning Villa into their half. Within a minute Ireland had cleared off the line as Per Mertesacker headed a corner goalwards. Aaron Ramsey took up the initiative, breaking from midfield just as Jack Wilshere does. The first time he scuffed his shot following Tomas Rosicky's pass; the second time, having first won possession, he ran on to Alex Song's ball only for Dunne to sweep his legs away. It beggared belief that Dunne, already cautioned, was not booked but justice was done when Van Persie converted.
The Emirates came alive, thrilled to see the Arsenal of old back. There was an urgency to them, with men demanding the ball and then running at opponents with a confidence and purpose rarely seen this season. Walcott dribbled down the right, past a string of defenders, then, as so often, chose the wrong option with an optimistic shot. This time he got lucky as Alan Hutton lashed his clearance straight at him, the ball rebounding in off his shoulder.
Next it was Koscielny, of all people, tearing into the box. He was pursued by the diligent Bent, alas, for what followed was a striker's tackle. Another penalty, which Van Persie this time tucked into the opposite corner. Arsenal had the bulk of subsequent possession but Villa had the best chances and should had earned a replay – but Petrov spurned the opportunity presented when Koscielny slipped and Ciaran Clark duffed a free header.
Arsenal: FABIANSKI; COQUELIN; KOSCIELNY; MERTESACKER; VERMAELEN; RAMSEY; SONG; ROSICKY; WALCOTT; VANPERSIE; OX-CHAMBERLAIN;
Aston Villa: GIVEN; WARNOCK; CUELLAR; DUNNE; HUTTON; CLARK; PETROV; KEANE; IRELAND; AGBONLAHOR; BENT
Goals: Dunne 33, Bent 45; Van Persie pen 54, pen 61, Walcott 57
Substitutes: Arsenal Arteta (Rosicky, 71), Henry (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 89), Sagna (Walcott, 89). Aston Villa Gardner (Agbonlahor, 71), Bannan (Petrov, 82).
Booked: Arsenal Koscielny. Aston Villa Dunne.
Man of the match Van Persie. Match rating 8/10. Possession: Arsenal 61% Aston Villa 39%.
Attempts on target: Arsenal 12 Aston Villa 5.
Referee M Jones (Cheshire). Attendance 60,019.