Fabregas sacrifices himself for the cause

Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0: Arsenal's delight at match-winning cameo cut short as captain aggravates hamstring injury

At the final whistle the Tannoy belted out the Curtis Mayfield soul classic "Move On Up", to herald Arsenal's progression up the Premier League table to within four points of leaders Chelsea with a game in hand. However, the old Abba favourite "SOS" would have been more appropriate.

Arsenal required the remarkable intervention of injured captain Cesc Fabregas, a player that Arsène Wenger said he would only call on in case of emergency, to record the victory that puts them firmly back in the title hunt. Wenger issued his desperate appeal to Fabregas with almost an hour gone, and the talismanic Spaniard responded with a majestic 27-minute display that turned the game on its head.

Fabregas was clearly not fully fit, but his impact was instant. Arsenal began to play with more presence, with more purpose, and with more effect. A gloriously struck free-kick and a sweet finish to a sweeping Arsenal move set up the victory, before Fabregas limped off with six minutes left to an ovation from a grateful home support.

Few players have the ability to walk half-fit into a game involving two of the best teams in the land, and elevate it to a totally different level. Fabregas is just such a player. Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill admitted there was little his side could do to contain Fabregas, despite the Arsenal man's evident lack of fitness.

"His contribution to the game was immense," the Villa manager said. "He made a major impact on the game and has turned the game for Arsenal completely."

The contribution of Fabregas demonstrated just how much Arsenal have come to rely on their most valuable asset. What is more, the first hour of the game also highlighted just how much Arsenal could do with a new striker in the January transfer window.

In the prolonged absence of Robin van Persie through injury, Arsenal simply need someone to score a goal, to provide the edge that ensures their consummate football does not go without its just reward.

Before the introduction of Fabregas in the 57th minute, Arsenal had laboured to find any way through the Villa defence, who came to the Emirates stadium on a run of four wins and four consecutive clean sheets. Andrei Arshavin filled Van Persie's role at the centre of an attacking triumvirate for much of the game, but his lack of height made him liable to drift into the wider positions in which he feels more comfortable.

The better goal chances fell to his strike partner Eduardo, who unfortunately does not look capable of providing the answer to Arsenal's striking conundrum. The Brazilian with the Croatian passport has now only managed one goal in his last 12 appearances, a tap-in in the 3-0 victory over Hull on 19 December.

Wenger, who has been allowed £30m to spend on transfers should he so desire it, said afterwards he had an open mind about recruiting another new striker in January, and admitted he might have to buy another midfielder if the injuries to Fabregas and to Denilson, who left the field with a back problem, prove to be bad ones.

"I will keep my eyes open and if a good opportunity turns up, we will do it," Wenger said. "At the moment I don't have any names. I will have to look."

The pattern of the game was set as early as the fourth minute, when the excellent Abou Diaby turned his man and passed to Eduardo, who lost his marker before mishitting a limp shot that Brad Friedel saved easily.

Villa played their part in what was an engaging first 45 minutes, and had Carlos Cuellar not fired wide from 12 yards they could have taken an unlikely lead.

Friedel did well to save a curling attempt from Samir Nasri in the 56th minute, but it was not until the introduction of Fabregas a minute later that Arsenal began to show their teeth. The Spaniard served notice that he was in a hurry to make his mark with a shot from fully 40 yards that just sailed over Friedel's bar within a minute of making his arrival. The Arsenal supporters have adored Fabregas ever since the days the old North Bank used to sing: "He's only seventeen, he's better than Roy Keane." The Spaniard, now 22, delivered once again with two key moments that won the game. His free-kick from 25 yards, after he had been fouled by Richard Dunne, was spectacular, arching over the wall and curling just beyond the fingers of the desperate Friedel.

Theo Walcott also came on and created trouble for Villa, setting Fabregas up for his second, a classy finish to round off a swift counter-attack. James Milner, not at his best in a more defensive role, gave away possession needlessly and Armand Traoré found Walcott with a 60-yard pass. The England winger held up the ball just long enough for Fabregas to join the attack, and then found his captain who swept the ball into Friedel's net.

It proved to be the last meaningful action for Fabregas, who aggravated his hamstring injury and limped off with six minutes to go. William Gallas made a timely intervention to deny Gabriel Agbonlahor late in the match, and then Manuel Almunia saved bravely from the same Villa player on the rebound. There was still time, however, for Diaby to cap his towering performance in midfield with a solo goal in stoppage time. The Villa defence backed off and Diaby strode to the edge of the penalty area before side-footing a precise shot into the bottom corner.

Wenger's confidence in his team has proved well founded as they have taken 13 points from a possible 15 since losing 3-0 at home to Chelsea four weeks ago. Quite how far they go, however, may well depend on how serious Fabregas's injury proves to be, and on who Wenger buys in the January transfer window.

Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Traoré; Denilson (Fabregas, 57; Ramsey, 84), Song, Diaby; Nasri, Arshavin, Eduardo (Walcott, 64). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Vela, Silvestre, Eboué.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young (Delph, 76), Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock; A Young, Petrov, Milner, Downing; Agbonlahor, Heskey (Carew, 63). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Reo-Coker, Beye, Collins.

Booked: Arsenal Song; Aston Villa A Young, Cuellar, Delph.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Man of the Match: Fabregas.

Attendance: 60,056.

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