Fabregas takes the lead role as Highbury stages yet another blockbuster

Arsenal 3 - Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Football

Manchester United may fancy their chances of testing Arsenal's unbeaten run of 49 League games when they face up to the champions at Old Trafford next Sunday, but they will have learned little to their advantage from a game that saw 16 shots rain in on Aston Villa's reserve goalkeeper Stefan Postma. Getting better and better it seems, Arsenal make no demands upon the audience; it isn't necessary to probe for hidden qualities in their play, to appreciate subtle roles in the wider scheme of things. They are simply swift and graceful, and, in this form, unstoppable.

Villa's manager David O'Leary, who holds the record number of appearances for his former club, could only hold up his hands. "We didn't have our strongest team - and that's an imperative if you hope to get anything from Arsenal - but they were superb, the best team that's been at Highbury, for me," he said. "For the 20 years I was here I thought it was a big club but they've grown bigger. They've got a wonderful team to go into a wonderful new stadium that will bring in more money. They're big, they're strong, they're fit and very quick. Brilliant to watch."

The future is bright. When Arsenal lost Patrick Vieira to an ankle injury and withdrew Robert Pires, the average age of their midfield was just under 20. And in Francesc Fabregas, a prodigiously gifted Spaniard who was spirited away from Barcelona, they have a player who matches Wayne Rooney for strength and maturity.

Villa's big mistake was to score first, catching Arsenal cold with a move along their left that was poorly defended, leaving Lee Hendrie with the opportunity of a shot that flew low past Jens Lehmann. It provoked Arsenal into a series of assaults that had Postma hurling himself about his goalmouth, stopping shots with his legs and his body.

The loss of Gareth Barry to a reckless tackle by Lauren undermined Villa's cause, but even so Arsenal were in rampant form, their football so swift and compelling that veteran observers drew comparisons with the best teams in history. At this early stage of the season, Dennis Bergkamp, whose fear of flying will cause him to miss Arsenal's Champions' League game against Panathinaikos on Wednesday, is a huge influence, dropping off into space to link up moves that are often breathtaking in their simplicity

Most of Arsenal's moves developed along Villa's left and they were rewarded in the 19th minute when the electric Thierry Henry lured Mark Delaney into a tackle that brought the Frenchman down in the penalty area. Shaken up by the fall, Henry handed the responsibility to his compatriot Pires, who equalised.

Postma continued to thwart Arsenal - "I was pleased for him because he's waited patiently for his chance," O'Leary said - but the encouragement of going in level at the interval was denied Villa when Arsenal scored again in the second minute of stoppage time. This time it was José Antonio Reyes who emphasised the extent of his quality, sliding in a perfectly judged pass that Henry stroked past the heroic Postma.

"It knocked the stuffing out of us," O'Leary admitted. "In that first half we might have gone two-up, instead we went behind and Arsenal's tails were up."

Arsenal returned to charm us with their fluency, their moves the product of confidence and delivered so swiftly that Villa's goal was frequently threatened by attacks that were carried the length of the field. Until he tired, Fabregas was a revelation, upstaging his seniors, particularly with one beautifully judged 30-yard pass that fell into Bergkamp's path.

Fabregas was only 15 when Arsène Wenger was alerted to his potential. "We weren't sure," he said. "You never can be at that age. But he is now looking a real player. He wants to learn and he loves the game. It is pointless comparing him with Rooney because Rooney is already a big player who has been in a major tournament but he is completely at home on the field."

It was the Arsenal manager's intention to take Fabregas off but the thrust of JLloyd Samuel's studs in Vieira's shin that led to his departure in the 67th minute, possibly to miss the match in Athens, meant that the young midfielder completed a full game.

The introduction of Mathieu Flamini, yet another young capture by Wenger's scouting network, led to Arsenal's third goal in the 72nd minute. Once again, simplicity was the key. Flamini fed in from the right, Henry touched on, leaving Villa without cover and Pires with an open goal.

Goals: Hendrie (3) 0-1; Pires (19 pen) 1-1; Henry (45) 2-1; Pires (72) 3-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Campbell, A Cole; Pires (Van Persie, 84), Vieira (Flamini, 67), Fabregas, Reyes (Pennant, 76); Bergkamp, Henry. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Cygan.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Postma: De la Cruz, Delaney, Mellberg, Samuel; Hendrie, McCann, Hitzlsperger (Davis, h-t), Barry (Whittingham, 8), C Cole (Angel, 58), Vassell. Substitutes not used: Henderson (gk), Solano.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: Arsenal: A Cole, Fabregas. Aston Villa: Samuel, Mellberg, C Cole, Hendrie.

Man of the match: Henry.

Attendance: 38,137.

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