Amid all the questions that slid into Arsène Wenger like so many stiletto thrusts – they ranged from the cold relationship of the "Odd Couple", point-savers Emmanuel Adebayor and Nicklas Bendtner, to the roaring momentum of Manchester United – was the one he was asking himself. The one that was so deeply etched into his face.
It is the one he will carry to San Siro tomorrow night for the rematch with Milan with probably as much trepidation as he has ever known in all the pivotal moments of a sensational career. Simply, it asks if a campaign born in precocious brilliance and competitive courage has now run its course. Wenger says not despite a performance so bankrupt, so leaden, that an hour after Bendtner had slotted home the knock-down of Adebayor in the last seconds, Villa's manager Martin O'Neill was still so distraught he swiftly chose the less diplomatic option when asked if Arsenal's point had come because they fought to the last kick – or because they were "lucky bastards?"
"I would say the latter," said O'Neill. It is true that by the lights of both teams Villa played as well as Arsenal played badly – and that Wenger's statistically inaccurate pre-match claim that his players were fouled more than any of their rivals left him badly exposed to another O'Neill barb. "He's a great coach but a bad mathematician."
O'Neill was, perhaps understandably, in no mood to take the wider view. He lost arguably the most improved defender in the English game, Curtis Davies, and midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker with early injury, and thought it was unrelated, noted that arguably the worst tackle of the game was made by Arsenal's Mathieu Flamini, a two-footed, high lunge that fortunately made no significant contact with Villa flesh.
Despite the dislocation, Villa remained a superb testament to both the graft and the vision of their manager. They were also a football team, it had to be said, more than a little wasted on the alarming number of their fans who spent much of the afternoon chanting obscenely on thetragic plight of Eduardo da Silva. Both managers reacted with disgust, Wenger observing that may be there was no limit to human stupidity. Elsewhere, he clearrly believed that in the genral eagerness to build his funeral pyre there were few oversights that he was obliged to address.
Arsenal still led the League, Wenger pointed out. They still had just one defeat – against United's four – and if this was indeed a poor, even wretched performance it was not as though it had come out of a clear sky. No, said Wenger, it came from a trauma that would have affected any team of any average age.
Wenger added: "I believe we will play better on Tuesday. Today was a day when we weren't at our best. Tuesday will be a different game. If you had seen Milan in Cantania in midweek (when, like Arsenal, the reigning European champions could do no better than 1-1) you would think exactly the same. It was a very sensitive day for us (after Eduardo's injury.) The whole week was not easy to handle. It was the first time we faced that kind of situation and it takes a bit to get over that because we are human beings and basically everybody thinks, 'That could have happened to me'. So our minds were a little bit off the sharpness of the competition."
He added that Robin van Persie will be on the bench in Milan and is hopeful that Tomas Rosicky and Kolo Touré will soon be back in a team that crumpled visibly when Philipe Senderos, a hero against Milan, turned an innocuous cross from Gabriel Agbonlahor past Manuel Almunia. Some fine goalkeeping by Scott Carson, who will surely emerge soon enough from the catastrophe of his slip against Croatia, compounded Arsenal's unease – and killed off the potential impact of another impressive outing by Theo Walcott.
It meant that with Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb almost unrecognisable as the creative forces that so brilliantly launched Arsenal's campaign, salvation was left in the hands of Adebayor and Bendtner.
When they finally delivered, Adebayor exploiting a lack of cover at the far post which incensed O'Neill, and Bendtner producing his team's one moment of untramelled certainty, they confirmed that they mostly live on separate planets. There was no shared celebration; they might have been commuters separating themselves at the door of a tube carriage.
Yet Wenger refused to add the at-odds couple to his list of problems when it was pointed out that Bendtner walked off alone. "I didn't see that and frankly I don't know about this. I believe they have a normal relationship but what is the most important thing is that you respect the game.
"You do what the game demands. The great players always do what the game wants. If I want to win and to win I have to give you the ball then if I am a great player I still give you the ball. For me emotional sympathy is not a big importance for the big players – they respect the game so much it goes above liking and disliking. I don't know if they like each other or not but I don't see a problem. You don't have to be friends to play well together.
"I haven't seen any evidence that there is a big friction. There was an incident at Tottenham but they sorted it out. Last week I spoke to Adebayor about him not passing to Bendtner in Birmingham, but he told told me he didn't see him."
Against the scale of Arsenal's current challenge, the squabble is of course minutia. Denis Law kicked his Manchester United teammates Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles with great relish whenever they pulled on an England shirt, but that didn't detract from the comradeship for their club. The same was true of the Adebayor-Bendtner one-two which, Wenger insists, could prove to be the most psychologically valuable goal of Arsenal's season.
Such defiance, anyway, survived in Fabregas despite his parody of early-season form. "We are still at the top," he wanted to remind everybody. "We have to be strong. Four weeks ago we were two points behind United, then we were five in front. Now it is one point but we are in front. I don't think it is so bad. Chelsea have 25 international players. United won the League last season and are a great team. But we are young and we are there. Maybe we didn't play the best game of our life, but we came back and got a point. That means something."
Quite what, for the moment, is a mystery as deep as one of the furrows on Arsène Wenger's brow. Yet where better is there to fight than from the top of the League so many believe you have already lost?
A bad week for Arsenal, no doubt, but a lost campaign, a broken dream? It is of course too early to say – and, when you think of what has gone before, also too impudent.
Goals: Senderos og (27) 0-1. Bendtner (90) 1-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2) Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Senderos (Denilson, 78), Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini (Gilberto, 78), Diaby (Bendtner, 59); Adebayor, Walcott. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), J Hoyte.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Gardner, Davies (Osbourne, 40), Laursen, Bouma; Young, Reo-Coker (Knight, 32) Barry, Maloney (Harewood, 71); Carew, Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Salifou.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne and Weir).
Booked: Arsenal Gallas; Aston Villa Barry, Osbourne.
Man of the match: Laursen.
Title run-in and chase for Europe
Remaining games: 9 March (a) Wigan Athletic, 15 March (h) Middlesbrough, 23 March (a) Chelsea, 29 March (a) Bolton, 5 April (h) Liverpool, 13 April (a) Man United, 19 April (h) Reading, 28 April (a) Derby County, 3 May (h) Everton, 11 May (a) Sunderland
Aston Villa (6th)
Remaining games: 12 March (h) Middlesbrough, 15 March (a) Portsmouth, 22 March (h) Sunderland, 30 March (a) Man United, 5 April (h) Bolton, 12 April (a) Derby County, 20 April (h) Birmingham City, 27 April (a) Everton, 3 May (h) Wigan Athletic, 11 May (a) West Ham UnitedReuse content