Arsenal climb the 49 steps

The Premiership: Pires double sets up the half-century classic at Old Trafford
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The Independent Football

For 16 minutes it seemed as if Arsenal's remarkable unbeaten run could fall flat, cut off a week before Arsène Wenger's side could symbolically underline the changing of the Premiership guard by clocking up a 50th League match without defeat at the home of their arch rivals, Manchester United.

For 16 minutes it seemed as if Arsenal's remarkable unbeaten run could fall flat, cut off a week before Arsène Wenger's side could symbolically underline the changing of the Premiership guard by clocking up a 50th League match without defeat at the home of their arch rivals, Manchester United.

Aston Villa threatened to spoil that particular party when Lee Hendrie crashed in the opening goal at Highbury from 20 yards after only three minutes. But in recent seasons the parades that Villa have rained on have tended to be their own. Sure enough, after 19 minutes Mark Delaney, fresh from a miserable week away with Wales, fouled Thierry Henry in the area, Robert Pires netted the penalty and there was an immediate resumption of the one-way traffic that has become so familiar when Arsenal are in action. Henry made it 2-1 just before half-time and Pires added his second 18 minutes from time.

It could have been more than 3-1 ­ Stefan Postma, Villa's Dutch goalkeeper, made sure that it was not ­ but there is only so much than one player can do in trying to repel the red tide. Arsenal have amassed 25 points in their first nine games of the season and scored 29 goals, netting more goals at home ­ 17 ­ than any other side has scored in total.

As Arsenal survey the Premiership from the 49th step of their historic ascent, they have to search for a challenger. Closest to them are Chelsea, who are as dull as Arsenal are exhilarating, and their unlikely achievement of losing, for the first time in the League this season, to a Manchester City rearguard action after conceding Nicolas Anelka's penalty means they are five points away. It is a lot to ask to keep pace with Arsenal, but Manchester United have made a poor fist of trying and they are 11 points back after a 0-0 draw at Birmingham City. Next weekend's contest at Old Trafford could be an embarrassment for a club some of the world's richest sporting investors are squabbling over. An injury to Patrick Vieira could offer United a glimmer of hope, but Wenger said: "He's a strong boy, so I still hope he will recover."

The French coach said of yesterday's match: "It was an unexpected start, but from then on I felt we developed some fantastic play. We needed to be steady, stubborn with our game. We did it very well. It was very enjoyable to watch." The notion of a Premiership coach sitting back and enjoying a match is foreign to most of his British counterparts.

After enduring United's struggle at St Andrew's, Sir Alex Ferguson will not be filing that match under "fun". He expressed grudging admiration for the Birmingham side sent out by Steve Bruce, the former United captain, when he said: "You have to give credit to them." United earned little for failing to fashion a breakthrough despite playing part of the second half with Rooney, Van Nistelrooy, Smith, Saha and Ronaldo on the pitch together.

Liverpool are a point further back than United but it could have been worse, as they trailed 2-0 at Fulham for the 20 minutes that straddled half-time. Then they were given a kick-start by Zat Knight deflecting home a cross-cum-shot from Milan Baros, who netted the equaliser after 71 minutes. Josemi was sent off for a second yellow card with 14 minutes left, but Xabi Alonso thumped in a 25-yard free-kick three minutes later. Igor Biscan wrapped up a 4-2 victory in the last minute.

Whatever else, for the Premiership to be a contest, someone has to beat Arsenal.

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