Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 1: Last-gasp Bendtner stuns O'Neill as Arsenal cling to one-point lead

Superb Villa well worthy of point but fans' sickening Eduardo chant leaves Wenger shaking his head
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The Independent Football

Arsène Wenger spread his arms wide in irritation as one of his players wasted a ball, before angrily kicking a water bottle. Well into added time at the end of a long week in which doubts had been expressed about his side's capacity to hold their nerve in the title run-in, his men were a goal down to an Aston Villa superbly orchestrated by their manager, Martin O'Neill.

Wenger's team had been insipid, uninspiring, and heading for only their second defeat at this stadium. This time there were no excuses, even for the master mitigator. Then, with the faithful impatiently imploring Gaël Clichy to chip the ball into a packed goalmouth, the left-back obliged. Emmanuel Adebayor headed it down at the far post, it fell invitingly for substitute Nicklas Bendtner and the young Dane stroked it home with precision. Wenger just about allowed himself a smile. Across the way, O'Neill could only look on in disgust, as well he might.

It had been a day when Arsenal needed to show their mental durability. Yet for so much of this contest they appeared still to be suffering a reaction to last week's injury to Eduardo da Silva at St Andrew's, and all that ensued. "We had a hangover from last week, particularly in the first half," Wenger agreed. "The second half became much better, although we lacked a bit of spark. But today, we showed desire and refused to lose."

The late goal also silenced the away supporters, some of whom had amused themselves chorusing a refrain alluding to Eduardo's injury. It went along the lines of: "He used to have silky skills. Now he walks like Heather Mills." Wenger shook his head, and declared: "Intelligence and stupidity can have no limits, but sometimes stupidity wins."

But Villa did not, which means Arsenal maintain their leadership of the Premier League. Though in seven days they have seen a five-point advantage over Manchester United become one, that late equaliser could prove crucial. "Getting a point can be a big boost for us," reflected Wenger, who added that Robin van Persie could be in his squad for Tuesday's Champions' League game against Milan. "Psychologically, to lose would have affectedour confidence. I know Man United will be favourites because they have the momentum, but we are a point in front and have lost one game all season."

This so easily could have been their second defeat. By their own imperious standards, Arsenal were dreadful. From the moment that Philippe Senderos silenced his own crowd in the first half with an own goal you sensed this was a day when the Gunners could capitulate. When O'Neill, whose in-form Villa arrived boasting the best away scoring record in the League, claimed that he was "more than disappointed – we played brilliantly", you knew what he meant. O'Neill organised his Villa side beautifully, despite losing Curtis Davies, with a ruptured achilles tendon, and Nigel Reo-Coker, whose back seized up, in the first half. His defenders were resolute until those closing seconds, and Villa's attacking verve, with the England contender Gabriel Agbonlahor outstanding, constantly troubled Wenger's men.

There had been close scrutinyof William Gallas following last week's events. In the match programme he had attributed his bout of petulance to "anger", although about nothing in particular, "because I am a passionate man". But if Wenger required evidence that his captain's mind was fully attuned to the challenges ahead, the Frenchman appeared to confirm it with a fine saving challenge on Agbonlahor as he sped in on goal. It was Agbonlahor whose ball in to the goalmouth from the left, just before the half-hour, was turned into his own goal by Senderos. Shortly afterwards Gallas was cautioned for bringing down Agbonlahor in full flight.

Arsenal began promisingly enough. Theo Walcott turned Davies beautifully on the edge of the area, and from a wide angle forced a fine save from Scott Carson. Walcott used his pace and trickery to unsettle the Villa rearguard, but it was not to last. The leaders looked vulnerable, a point reinforced when Shaun Maloney's effort had to be turned away by Manuel Almunia.

From the restart, Walcott tested Carson, but otherwise Arsenal looked pallid and uninspired. They lacked incisionand their passing was strangely awry. John Carew was deployed in a deeper role after the break, with Agbonlahor a lone front-runner, assisted by Ashley Young, as Villa sought to maintaintheir advantage.

Bendtner appeared for Abou Diaby with half an hour remaining. Alexander Hleb tested Carson and Mathieu Flamini cleared the bar from distance. Then Bendtner struck late, and it was received like a victory.

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