There is hope for English football if not the national team. "Have you ever seen England play like this?" Arsenal supporters sang as their team produced a majestic first 45 minutes of passing and movement, even allowing Aston Villa the first goal before easing their way into the lead. With Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie both missing, it was the most emphatic reaction to the midweek defeat in Seville that ended a club record of 28 unbeaten matches.
But there is more to football than sweet passing and in the second half Martin O'Neill's motivational powers were evident as the home side, feeding Ashley Young on the left at every opportunity, tested Arsenal's resolution. The crossbar was eventually required to help Arsne Wenger's side extend their lead at the top of the table, which could be further increased whatever Manchester United do tomorrow, when they finally play their game in hand away to Newcastle on Wednesday.
As ever, Wenger had the words for it: "Brilliant and resilient," he said. "We saw the two sides of us today. In the first half we played absolutely amazing football. No one can live with us when we play like that."
The home side's run of four successive victories had propelled them into sixth place prior to kick-off, their highest placing of the season. Outplayed at home by Liverpool and Manchester United but winners over Chelsea, they welcomed the last of the big four to Villa Park without the suspended Nigel Reo-Coker and with a certain trepidation, which proved well founded. Reo-Coker's replacement Stiliyan Petrov would last only half an hour and in that time his difficulty was an obligation to keep an eye on the outstanding Alexander Hleb, who had a floating role on his return to the side, just behind the one Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor. That tended to leave Villa outnumbered in a crucial area.
Scott Carson, slowly rehabilitating after his Wembley nightmare, had to make an early save from Adebayor, and neither Petrov nor any of the back four were close enough to Hleb when Mathieu Flamini's pass played him through the middle, the goalkeeper saving resourcefully with his feet.
It was a surprise when Villa suddenly managed a bad miss and a goal in the space of two minutes, both by the same player. Craig Gardner was initially the Villain turned villain, miscuing horribly as Kolo Tour cleared straight to him. In the next attack, Young sent John Carew away down the left for a deflected cross that fell perfectly for Gardner to sweep in.
The visitors' silky smooth passing soon brought them back into the game and then into the lead. Midway through the half, Emmanuel Ebou played a one-two with Adebayor on the right and crossed from the byline for Flamini to drive in a strong shot from 18 yards. The goalscorer hit two more fierce efforts before Adebayor leapt above two defenders to head in Bacary Sagna's cross at the culmination of another sparkling move.
The only danger after such an apparently effortless recovery was that a casual air would creep in, though Wenger preferred to praise Villa's commitment. Manuel Almunia came under some pressure and just after the hour Carew headed one of Young's inswinging centres against the crossbar. Less admirable was Carew's lunge from behind at Hleb that caused the Belarussian, who had rivalled Flamini as the game's outstanding performer, to be replaced by Theo Walcott. Most of Villa's challenges were more legitimate and as they thudded into them all over the pitch a genuine contest had broken out again.
Arsenal's next substitution was a more defensive one, Tomas Rosicky making way for Gilberto Silva to shore up the central area. But Carew's back-header over the bar was as close as Villa came to completing a fightback that had seemed inconceivable at half-time.Reuse content