Arsenal battle on but Villa need to show patience with youth

Aston Villa 2 Arsenal 4

No rest for the wicked and none for the successful football team or even, sometimes, the struggling one. Arsenal, thanks to their involvement in the Champions League and Carling Cup, are on a run of seven midweek games in eight weeks, the only blank one being taken up with international friendlies; and that is just before the "holiday" period brings another five matches in a fortnight.

Aston Villa, currently less successful, are desperate for some recovery time for half-a-dozen missing players, yet in the first 11 days of December they face their two greatest rivals, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion, plus Gérard Houllier's old club Liverpool on his return to Anfield.

Of the two squads, Arsenal's is clearly the stronger, as reflected in Saturday's result and its influence on the league table. They went to the top for the short period between a deserved victory here and Dimitar Berbatov's shooting practice against Blackburn. Villa, meanwhile, dropped into the bottom six, as low as they have been since David O'Leary was sacked four years ago.

The relatively rewarding period under Martin O'Neill since then ended in August when he decided that the owner Randy Lerner's age of austerity was not for him, so Houllier and Villa's supporters are having to live with the new realities. For a neutral, it was good to hear a manager admitting of Saturday's game: "We were beaten by a team that were better than us. Simple as that." Committed fans require a maturity to accept such concessions, and patience with the youngsters forced to play more first-team games than is ideal in the absence of senior men like Stiliyan Petrov, Nigel Reo-Coker, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey.

Some of those supporters booed the team off at half-time following goals in quick succession from the excellent Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri. It was a legitimate criticism that Villa's approach had been unadventurous and to the crowd's satisfaction Houllier went on the offensive for the second half.

That involved replacing Robert Pires, the 37-year old former Arsenal hero, who achieved little in 45 minutes but had at least shown his commitment on a bitter day by turning out for his full debut in short sleeves and no gloves. Nathan Delfouneso, just over half Pires's age, came on to add some pace to the attack, but although Ciaran Clark scored the first senior goals of his career and should have had a memorable hat-trick, Arsenal found greater resilience than in the previous week's collapses against Tottenham and Braga, adding further goals themselves through Marouane Chamakh and Jack Wilshire.

"We didn't do enough in the first half," Clark said. "We didn't get tight enough but second half we squeezed up the pitch and got close to them." A 21-year-old England youth international, Clark has now declared for the Republic of Ireland. Although born in London, he joined Villa aged 11, and has been long enough in the Midlands to appreciate the significance of the forthcoming derbies. "We have to take the second half against Arsenal and put that into effect for the whole game at Birmingham," he added.

Arsène Wenger, meanwhile, is promising to put out "a strong team" for Arsenal's Carling Cup quarter-final tie at home to Wigan tomorrow in a competition which would appear to offer the club's best opportunity of a first trophy in six years.

Scorers: Aston Villa Clark 52, 70. Arsenal Arshavin 39, Nasri 45, Chamakh 56, Wilshere 90. Subs: Aston Villa Delfouneso (Pires, h-t), Ireland (Carew, 66), Herd (Bannan, 86). Unused Guzan (gk), Beye, Lichaj, Hogg.

Arsenal Gibbs (Nasri, 85), Denilson (Arshavin, 85), Djourou (Rosicky, 90). Unused Szczesny (gk), Walcott, Van Persie, Bendtner.

Booked: Aston Villa Clark. Arsenal Chamakh.

Man of the match Arshavin. Match rating 8/10.

Possession Aston Villa 45% Arsenal 55%.

Shots on target Aston Villa 3 Arsenal 6.

Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham). Att 38,544.

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