Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 1: Walcott's cameo plays to Wenger's waiting game

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The Independent Football

"Have I kept you waiting long?" said an apologetic Martin O'Neill as he entered the press room. "About 25 years," might have been the response of an Aston Villa supporter.

Not since Villa claimed the title at Highbury in May 1981, courtesy of Ipswich's failure to win at Ayresome Park the same day, have their supporters left a match at Arsenal in such an optimistic mood.

Despite dropping two points, Arsenal fans were reasonably satisfied too, the game representing the beginning of an era for them as well. Not only is the new stadium a wonder to behold, but on the pitch Theo Walcott's half-hour cameo was so eye-catching it made one think Sven Goran Eriksson's error was not in taking him to Germany, but in failing to play him when he got there.

"I don't normally notice opposition players but he was brilliant," said O'Neill. "He's the kind of player who can bring something to any team when he comes on," said Wenger. "He came back from the World Cup happy at being there but frustrated at not having played. I'm surprised he got criticism for being there. You can understand criticism when you don't play well, but if you don't play at all..."

Wenger added that he intended to use Walcott sparingly as he was "still only 17", but conceded his impact against Villa "will speed up my desire to put him in." The player himself said the nerves which sent him to the toilet minutes before coming on disappeared with the ovation he received and his first touch. "I need to have a few more games, but I'm on a high," he said. Fortunately, given that he was one of the players randomly selected for drug testing, it seemed a natural one.

It was Walcott who made Arsenal's equaliser, lashed in at the far post by Gilberto Silva as the clock ticked towards an opening home defeat at the Emirates Stadium. Villa, impressively organised given O'Neill's brief time at the helm, had doggedly defended a lead given them when Olof Mellberg beat Jens Lehmann to a corner shortly after the break. O'Neill's 4-3-3 had become 4-5-1, then 4-6-0 with even Juan Pablo Angel defending, by the time Arsenal broke through. It was hard to envisage the same commitment had David O'Leary remained manager.

O'Neill was justly proud and pleased with their performance but admitted to being concerned about the team's goalscoring potential, especially as he is unlikely to be able to act in the transfer market before the window closes.

But it is not something which will keep him awake at night having stepped out of the game for 15 months to help nurse his wife, Geraldine, through illness. He said: "I'm going to have to disagree with Bill Shankly," ­ who was famously quoted, possibly tongue-in-cheek, describing football as "more important" than "life or death".

O'Neill added: "It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt me when we lose but I think I have a broader perspective now. I'm still enthusiastic, the same things matter to me, there's tunnel vision in terms of my football, but I have a broader take on life."

His family were present to see him leaping about the technical area, cajoling his players, while a few yards away Wenger prowled with growing irritation as his team squandered their territorial dominance. They had two-thirds of the ball, won and wasted 18 corners while Villa converted their solitary one, and took 17 shots to Villa's four.

At claustrophobic Highbury this sort of pressure usually brought victory, but with Tomas Rosicky absent with a groin strain, and Cesc Fabregas, now wearing Patrick Vieira's old No 4 shirt, shackled by McCann, Arsenal struggled to adjust to the Emirates' open acres.

"It will take about 10 games," said Wenger. Depending on Champions' League ties, Tottenham's visit on 2 December could be the 11th home match.

One footnote. This was Graham Poll's first top-flight appearance since his World Cup disaster. He was impeccable, even reacting well when Fabregas accidentally caught him off the ball. Over the next 37 matches O'Neill, Wenger, and every other Premiership manager will be seeking the same display of character from their players.

Goals: Mellberg (53) 0-1; Gilberto (84) 1-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Djourou, Hoyte (Flamini, 80); Hleb, Fabregas, Gilberto, Ljungberg (Walcott, 73); Adebayor (Van Persie, 65), Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Cygan.

Aston Villa (4-3-3): Sorensen; Hughes, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel; Davis (Hendrie, 83), McCann, Barry; Agbonlahor, Angel (Laursen, 90), Moore (Djemba-Djemba, 89). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Phillips.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: Arsenal Touré; Aston Villa Hendrie, Angel.

Man of the match: McCann.

Attendance: 60,023.

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