At the end of a London spring day that was close to perfection, Arsenal occupied a sort of heaven: with a seventh consecutive Premier League victory, Arsène Wenger's team had tightened their grip on third place and given themselves every chance of rescuing a season that seemed doomed a mere five weeks ago, when they lost 4-0 in Milan and almost immediately went out of the FA Cup at Sunderland.
Sometimes – as if Kenny Dalglish needed a reminder this morning – it really is all about the Premier League. Three points ahead of Tottenham and eight in front of Chelsea with just eight matches to go, Arsenal have in their own gift not only automatic qualification for the Champions' League but the honour of ending the campaign as England's leading team from outside the M60.
Indeed they may yet have the crucial say in which of the clubs from within Manchester's peripheral motorway takes the title; City are due at the Emirates a fortnight today and two or three points dropped on the ground where Aston Villa proved hopelessly uncompetitive yesterday could leave Roberto Mancini's side even more at a disadvantage to the serial persistence of Sir Alex Ferguson's United.
The change of atmosphere at the Emirates has been radical and it is to be hoped that those who were foolish enough to chant "You don't know what you're doing" at Wenger when he replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain during the home defeat by United in January had the grace to feel sheepish now.
There was a bonus for proud Englishmen in that more than one indigenous player scored for Arsenal in the same match for the first time since Ian Wright, David Platt and Ray Parlour contributed to a 5-0 triumph over Barnsley in October 1997. This pair arrived in the same half, too; only nine minutes separated strikes by Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott well before the interval.
The long wait for the third was worth it, for in stoppage time Mikel Arteta, whose link with Alex Song in the deeper of two midfield lines was fundamental to Arsenal's solidity, hit from 30 yards a free kick of stunning velocity and wicked movement that Shay Given saw all the way but could do nothing about. Afterwards Wenger gave some of the credit to the smallness of Arteta's feet, arguing that such players could rely on the lacesof their little boots to encourage the ball to do tricks.
Not surprisingly, Alex McLeish was more prosaic, the Villa manager saying that each of the first two goals was "lamentable from our point of view" and adding that more "dynamic" displays – of the sort that had brought Villa their only win in eight matches at home to Fulham a fortnight ago – were needed to keep relegation at bay.
After a bizarre opening – Johan Djourou, having been promoted from substitute because Laurent Koscielny felt the effects of a knee injury during the warm-up, appeared to take one of Emile Heskey's elbows on his nose, requiring lengthy treatment – Arsenal established almost total dominance.
Gibbs celebrated after the Aston Villa defence parted and Given made an unusually weak attempt to keep out the left-back's low shot and soon Walcott, whose pace and penetrative running posed a recurrent threat, tamed a superb pass from Song before stabbing the ball past Given.
It might have been even more painful for a fatalistic-looking Villa. Given did well to touch over a crafty dipper from Arteta and, when Robin van Persie coaxed the ball past the goalkeeper, he was thwarted by Stephen Warnock, who took off and, with a flick of his head, brought off a Gordon Banks or Jim Montgomery of a goalmouth clearance.
Villa emerged for the second half in a more enterprising frame of mind and, with Gary Gardner on for Chris Herd, began to threaten. But Arsenal are more resilient than they might have appeared earlier in the season, while the splendid Thomas Vermaelen was out injured. Command was regained and Wenger took the opportunity to provide a final treat for the crowd in the form of a cameo from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Gibbs (Andre Santos 68); Song, Arteta; Walcott(Oxlade-Chamberlain 77), Rosicky, Gervinho (Ramsey 68); Van Persie.
Aston Villa (4-4-1-1): Given; Hutton (Lichaj 77), Collins, Cuellar, Warnock; Albrighton, Herd (Gardner 52), Petrov, Agbonlahor; Ireland; Heskey (Weimann 65).
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Arteta (Arsenal)
Match rating: 7/10