Aston Villa 0 Arsenal 0: Sorry Wenger concedes title dream is over

Inspired McCann helps Villa hold misfiring Gunners
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The Independent Football

It pained him to say it but Arsène Wenger had to concede the fact that the next 19 games will be a matter of "chasing the pack in front of us". And this from a man in red so familiar with leading the hunt. Way back in the heady expectancy of summer it would have been unthinkable that, at the turn of the year, Arsenal would be 22 points adrift of the leaders, in the slipstream of not only neighbours Tottenham but, of all people, Wigan Athletic, and with Champions' League qualification a question of hope rather than anticipation.

That is not the Gunners we have admired for so long under the Frenchman's stewardship. Yesterday encapsulated all their current failings away from home in what Wenger prefers to talk about as his team's transitional period. Here that translated into simply grim. His midfield were too often ineffectual, and when they did break through the Villa rearguard Arsenal's goal attempts lacked their customary deadly intent.

"We were not sharp enough, and not technically astute enough," was how Wenger preferred to analyse a performance which again accentuated the effect of Patrick Vieira's departure. Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini are talented young performers and Alexander Hleb is inventive and industrious, but for the moment none possess the authority and potential dominance of the former captain.

Even Thierry Henry was almost anonymous here, and Wenger conceded: "He was suffering a bit physically because this was his third game [in a few days]. But there was never real collective pressure on Villa."

After seven goals in two games from Villa - only matched by Manchester United as the entertainment club of the Premiership with 52 goals scored and conceded in their games - this was a disappointing conclusion to the old year for David O'Leary's men. Yet they matched and frequently outmanoeuvred their more gifted rivals. That can be attributed, according to O'Leary, to the work of the club's fitness guru Steve McGregor.

None possessed more energy than the inspirational Gavin McCann, who had a real appetite for this encounter, snarling and biting into challenges. "A real players' player," his manager said of him. If only his endeavour had been matched by the striking prowess of Villa's players in that first period when the Arsenal defence appeared vulnerable.

For the majority of a niggly first 45 minutes, O'Leary stood in dark overcoat, like a funeral director overseeing a particularly satisfactory service. In contrast, an anoraked Wenger skulked and muttered to anyone in the vicinity of the touchline. His team had been poor, and there was no disguising it. But having denied Villa, there was always the feeling that a touch of genius from Henry may open up the home side.

The problem was that the one first-half chance, when it materialised, went to Flamini, after a scintillating break involving Hleb and Fabregas. However, the young Frenchman spurned the opportunity, shooting over when clear.

If he felt bad, then the emotion was surely magnified in the psyche of Milan Baros, who wasted a similar opportunity for Villa just after the interval when Moore released the striker. Instead of surging in on goal he looked for support, found none, and resolved the dilemma by slashing the ball into the crowd.

Arsenal's absent defender Ashley Cole spoke before the match of how he sits next to his fellow defender Sol Campbell on the team coach in order to discuss politics. Yesterday, Arsenal could be thankful that after a torrid start to the game, when Campbell looked likely to be undone by Baros' wiles, he managed to settle down and dominate the centre ground, alongside Kolo Touré.

Ironically, the pair could, and should, have won it for Arsenal in the dying seconds. Campbell headed back Jose Antonio Reyes' corner to an unmarked Touré in front of goal, but the Ivory Coast defender stabbed the ball wide. "He was surprised, and intimidated to be in front of goal," said Wenger, with a rueful smile.

By then Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires were on, and the Gunners finished strongly. But a goal then would have applied a false gloss on Arsenal at the culmination of a year when the paint has begun to peel badly.