Martin O'Neill last night accused Arsène Wenger of an "appalling insult" after the Arsenal manager characterised Aston Villa as a physical, long-ball team playing a "very efficient English game".
Wenger, speaking after Arsenal extended their unbeaten run in the Premier League to 10 games but dropped to third rather than regaining the leadership as they had hoped, claimed his side had been unable to play with their usual fluidity because of what he implied was a one-dimensional Villa side.
Clearly frustrated by the events of the evening, which included Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky hitting the woodwork and Thomas Vermaelen (leg) and Eduardo (hamstring) sustaining injuries which will keep them out of Sunday's visit by Manchester United, the Arsenal manager said: "I believe we dropped two points [rather than gained one] because we had clear chances. On the other hand it was a very difficult game because they stopped us from playing when we had the ball and when they had it they played a very long-ball game and closed us down. We couldn't find our passing game."
Wenger added: "We know what you get when you come here and we weren't disappointed. It's a very efficient English game with long balls, and very physical. They did that very well and are a good side on counter-attacking, so when we took the gamble to go forward and they won the ball they are quick. That's why it was always us managing to create chances and them catching us on counter-attack or playing on [Gabriel] Agbonlahor and [Emile] Heskey with long balls.
O'Neill bristled when informed of Wenger's comments. "If he said that, it's an appalling insult," the Villa manager said. "If that's what he saw it's a ridiculous statement. He has made a few of those here, and that's as good as any. Ashley Young didn't have to play long balls when he was taking that left-back [Gaël Clichy] to the cleaners. We played splendidly and overall didn't deserve to lose, but we should have more points on the board."
Vermaelen, whose exit saw 35-year-old Sol Campbell return to league action for the first time since playing for Notts County at Morecambe in September, departed on crutches. The Belgian defender will have a scan today to determine whether he has a broken fibula or nerve damage. Either way, Campbell may have to mark Wayne Rooney on Sunday. "Sol hadn't played for six months and suddenly he's had two big games in four days," Wenger said. "We'll have to see how he recovers."
Villa, who have now failed to score in four Premier League fixtures since beating Stoke 1-0 on 20 December, created several opportunities. Agbonlahor forced a sprawling save from Manuel Almunia in only the fourth minute, while Stewart Downing spurned two gilt-edged chances, heading wide from an Ashley Young cross at almost point-blank range just after half-time.
Fabregas, who scored twice in Arsenal's 3-0 rout of Villa exactly a month earlier, had almost added to his recent haul of goals in first-half stoppage time, gliding past James Collins and Stiliyan Petrov before placing a diagonal shot beyond Brad Friedel. The ball came back off the post before being lashed into the Holte End by Rosicky.
Arsenal again shook the Villa goal frame just after the hour mark. Andrey Arshavin's shot, following a sprint down the left wing, ended with a drive that Friedel saved with a foot. Fabregas could not connect properly with the loose ball, but did help it on to Rosicky, whose shot crashed against the underside of the bar before being hacked clear.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, L Young; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Heskey (Delph, 78), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Delfouneso, Davies, Shorey, Beye.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen (Campbell, 35), Clichy; Rosicky, Fabregas, Denilson, Ramsey; Eduardo (Bendtner, 62), Arshavin. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk),Nasri, Walcott, Traoré, Eastmond.
Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Heskey; Arsenal Vermaelen.
Man of the match: A Young.