Arsène Wenger may believe the title is out of Arsenal's reach now and he is probably right. For the moment, however, they are no less likely to catch Manchester City than they were after losing at the Etihad Stadium at the weekend following a late rally to clinch all three points here last night.
Fortunate to be in front through the first-half penalty that enabled Robin van Persie to move within one goal of establishing a club record for League goals in a calendar year, they were pegged back by an Aston Villa side who were probably worthy of a point but after being denied a second, much more obvious, penalty found a winning goal within the last three minutes, scored by substitute Yossi Benayoun.
Villa, who had full-back Alan Hutton sent off in stoppage time when a foul on Thomas Vermaelen brought him a second yellow card within the space of 80 seconds, themselves entered the history books: Marc Albrighton's goal was the 20,000th since the launch of the Premier League in 1992. But it was scant consolation on a night when they deserved more.
"We were unlucky on Sunday and perhaps lucky tonight because Villa were dangerous and we had some legs that were a little jaded, and some minds, too," Wenger said. "It was late but we have three points that are vital."
Villa could have been ahead inside 15 minutes as Arsenal, again reliant on a makeshift back four with five defenders out injured, deployed midfielder Francis Coquelin at right-back and Vermaelen on the other side. Wojciech Szczesny kept out a header by Gabriel Agbonlahor with the Villa wingers, Albrighton and Charles N'Zogbia up for the task.
Instead, the home side found themselves behind after conceding a questionable penalty – "soft" in Villa manager Alex McLeish's view – as Ciaran Clark brought down Theo Walcott. The Villa player, beaten by Walcott's Cruyff turn at the edge of the box, briefly had an arm around the waist of the England winger but given that N'Zogbia had already been grappled at the other end with no sympathy from referee Jonathan Moss it seemed harsh. Once Villa stopped complaining, Van Persie slammed the spot-kick past Brad Guzan for his 16th goal of the Premier League season, putting him level with Thierry Henry's club calendar year record of 34, set in 2004.
Otherwise, Arsenal threatened little and Villa's efforts to exploit the visitors' back four continued to promise reward. It came, at last, nine minutes into the second half, when Albrighton dinked the ball past Per Mertesacker and reached it ahead of Szczesny to score Villa's deserved equaliser.
In the last 15 minutes, however, the balance tipped decisively in Arsenal's favour after three substitutions made them much more potent in attack. They should have had a second penalty 12 minutes from time when Stephen Warnock's lunge took out Van Persie. Bizarrely, having been kind to Wenger's side earlier, referee Moss was unmoved this time, compounding his clear error by booking the Dutchman for diving.
Inspired or not by perceived injustice, Arsenal had found another gear and Benayoun broke Villa's resistance, stealing in behind Agbonlahor to head home Van Persie's corner.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Guzan; Hutton, Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock; Albrighton (Delfouneso 87), Ireland (Bannan 45), Clark, Petrov, N'Zogbia; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used Marshall (gk), Collins, Delph, Weimann, Williams.
Arsenal (4-1-2-3): Szczesny; Coquelin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen; Frimpong (Rosicky 66); Ramsey (Arshavin 80), Arteta; Walcott, Gervinho (Benayoun 80), Van Persie. Substitutes not used Almunia (gk), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Squillaci, Chamakh.
Referee J Moss (West Yorkshire).