With Martin O'Neill on the verge of stealing the glory on his return to the Premiership, the Emirates Stadium yesterday discovered its first authentic hero in a slip of a lad called Theo Walcott. Brought on for an Arsenal debut in the last quarter of a game that was slipping away from them, Arsène Wenger's controversial recommendation to Sven Goran Eriksson for World Cup duty startled Aston Villa with his pace and set up the equalising goal for Gilberto Silva.
If the result was just reward on the predictable balance of play, it was still a less satisfactory day for Wenger than O'Neill, who had employed a typically bold 4-3-3 formation and seen his side hold on to the lead for half an hour after Olof Mellberg's header early in the second half.
Villa had not signed any reinforcements before David O'Leary left a month ago and there have been no purchases either since O'Neill's arrival. If the manager is forced to wait until Randy Lerner's proposed £62.6m takeover is completed, he admits it will be impossible to beat the 31 August transfer deadline. Villa need a quick Lerner, which is what we have always known Brian Clough's protégé to be.
The new man, making the most of what he has, had them organised and working hard, especially in midfield, where Steven Davis, Gavin McCann and Gareth Barry were determined and industrious.
Liam Ridgewell was outstanding in subduing Thierry Henry and although Villa were unable to attack as much as they would have liked, the lively Gabriel Agbonlahor gave a difficult afternoon to Justin Hoyte, Arsenal's third-choice left-back (at best) in the absence of Gaël Clichy and Ashley Cole. Still it looks as though Cole's absence may become a permanent one, though Wenger said last night: "Chelsea have had three months to buy him. It's not true that we turned any offer down."
He was happy with yesterday's defensive performance, acknowledging that Arsenal "made one mistake" and were punished for it. Particularly impressive were Emmanuel Eboué, almost an auxiliary forward down the right flank, and Cesc Fabregas, confirming that he can become one of the Premiership's most influential midfielders this season. There were fewer positives in attack, Henry's partnership with the lanky Emmanuel Adebayor never quite gelling. Nor did Alexander Hleb or Fredrik Ljungberg use the wider new Emirates pitch as effectively as Eboué.
Wenger was angry that France used Henry for 90 minutes of France's friendly against Bosnia on Wednesday. Walcott, he felt, was fresher. "He became dangerous at once and was very positive," he said. "But everyone expects a lot now."
The same may soon apply to Villa. "I though they were terrific," O'Neill enthused. "It gives a big boost to our confidence, but we're not going to become a really decent side overnight."
They had a few scrapes, notably when Adebayor won headers at the start and finish of the first half. As early as the sixth minute, after Thomas Sorensen had been forced to turn Eboué's sharply angled shot for a corner, Adebayor's header was going in until it was hacked away by Jlloyd Samuel. Then in the 44th minute, Kolo Touré did manage to head Fabregas's free-kick into the net, but the assistant referee spotted that he strayed forward a fraction too soon.
Eight minutes into the second half, however, it was the visitors who went ahead. This time Adebayor, back defending a corner, did not get to the ball first and nor did Jens Lehmann. The goalkeeper was nowhere near the cross, which Mellberg headed into an empty net.
Adebayor almost made amends on the hour as a rare error in the Villa defence allowed Hoyte's cross to reach him. The Togo striker jabbed an instinctive shot at goal but Ridgewell cleared off the line.
Arsenal forced 10 corners in the first 20 minutes at the start of the second half and Sorensen saved well from Eboué's third effort of the afternoon. There were still howls of disapproval from the home team's largest League crowd for many years at the over-elaboration that sometimes spoilt some good build-up play. But the appreciative roars 17 minutes from the end for Walcott's entry were soon to be redoubled.
He made an immediate impact by stealing the ball from Davis and racing away before feeding Henry, from whose pass Eboué hit first the goalkeeper and then the crossbar.
There was better to come six minutes from time. Having had a shot blocked by the defiant Ridgewell, Walcott unselfishly chipped his next chance to the far post where it fell for Gilberto, who did well to thrash an angled shot into the far corner.