Agbonlahor pierces Wenger's title dream
Arsenal 0 Aston Villa 2
Sunday 16 November 2008
After the Rolls-Royce performance, and the midweek boy racers, Arsenal stalled horribly on the starting grid. How predictable. It happens sometimes with precision instruments. But then such delicate machinery doesn't usually win endurance contests and this crashing defeat against Villa was a shocking setback which will puncture title pretensions. A fourth loss of the season – a second at home – and a paltry two wins in seven League games for Arsène Wenger's side just about demolishes their credentials.
Wenger had smiled at a suggestion that he should field the kids in a Premier League game. This morning that smile will be a rictus one. He will also have to cope without Cesc Fabregas for Arsenal's next match – away to Manchester City – after he collected a fifth booking and a one-match ban. For Villa it was a historic day capped by a thrilling display of pace and power from Gabriel Agbonlahor, their own young gun. It was also the first time Villa had won away to Arsenal for 15 years but, more relevantly, it put them level on points with their opponents.
Predictably enough Wenger fielded an entirely new XI from the one that had appeared in the Carling Cup destruction of Wigan Athletic. With a week's rest, following the vital win over Manchester United, there was a thin dividing line between freshness and ring rust and when, midway through the first half, Theo Walcott slid in to try and beat Ashley Young to the ball he caught the winger just as he ran into the Arsenal penalty area. Amid the protests, the penalty was awarded. Ashley Young took it, but showed, obviously, where he was going to place it and Manuel Almunia parried. Bacary Sagna beat Young to the rebound.
That followed a scramble in the Arsenal area, and a weak clearance by Mikaël Silvestre, and soon after Steve Sidwell was picked out running clear. He chested the ball down but his volley was easily collected by Almunia.
As much as the penalty miss was a blow for Villa, they also drew encouragement from the opportunity. Before it Walcott had crossed low, and dangerously, into the six-yard area, latching on to an incisive pass by Denilson and then Martin Laursen headed Samir Nasri's cross straight to Fabregas. The midfielder, on the area's edge, steadied himself and drove in a low shot which was spilled by Brad Friedel only for Curtis Davies to scramble the ball away as William Gallas attempted to turn it in. Back came Villa. Sidwell, impressing against one of his former clubs, beat Abou Diaby in the centre-circle and fed Ashley Young who sprinted forward to send a fierce shot – having already tested Almunia from distance in the opening minute – narrowly wide. A break by Agbonlahor led to a cutback for Gareth Barry to run on to. The midfielder – who, Villa manager Martin O'Neill revealed beforehand, would be offered a new contract soon – had a clear sight of goal but side-footed straight at Almunia. He should have scored.
Matters didn't improve for Arsenal after the break. The pace of Ashley Young and Agbonlahor held sway while only a strong challenge, on the borders of legitimacy, by Sagna prevented the latter reaching a corner and finally putting Villa ahead.
Home frustration grew. Arsenal were threatening less and less while danger lurked in the speed of Villa's breakaways. It was from one of those that the visitors, finally, took the lead. With Sagna down injured, Barry supplied Ashley Young who tried to pick out Agbonlahor with a curling cross. Gaël Clichy got in front of the Villa striker but only managed to direct his header past Almunia and into the net.
Immediately substitute Emmanuel Adebayor thumped a header into the turf, with Friedel touching the ball on to the post and away for a corner. Arsenal grew more frantic. A second substitute, Carlos Vela, chested the ball to Adebayor but his volley was charged down by Davies. Soon after Vela arrowed towards the area, but was felled. Arsenal appealed for a foul but Villa broke away with Agbonlahor running on to a punt forward, out-stripping Gallas, and crisply drove a low shot past Almunia to send a shockwave through the stadium and Arsenal crashing to defeat.
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