The gloating refrain of "One-nil to the Arsenal" used to echo around Highbury. At Villa Park yesterday, as Arsène Wenger's side moved two points clear at the top of the Premiership, Aston Villa's followers gave the tune a sardonic twist: "Two-nil to the referee."
Two decisions by Mark Halsey not only enraged Villa but worsened Sir Alex Ferguson's weekend, if that were possible. Midway through the first half the official allowed Thierry Henry to score from a swiftly taken free-kick while Thomas Sorensen was still arranging his defensive wall.
He then compounded the "error", as claret-and-blue eyes saw it, when he awarded Arsenal a questionable penalty soon after half-time. Henry converted the kick and effectively killed the game as a contest.
It mattered little to David O'Leary that Arsenal's passing and movement had been superior. The Villa manager, a stalwart of 800 games for the Gunners, said: "I feel very, very, very, very hard done-by. There was nothing in the game. Two decisions have cost us. The referee decided the match."
Of the first goal, O'Leary said: "The referee told my players he wanted them to give him 10 yards and to wait for the whistle. He was standing around the ball, and when it was taken, we were still waiting for the whistle."
Villa had a stronger case for complaint on the second goal, Nwankwo Kanu appearing to run into Olof Mellberg. "There's no doubt that it wasn't a penalty," O'Leary said. "Even they couldn't believe it. Ollie said the fella just knocked and ran right through him." Summoning his most sarcastic tone, he added: "At least the ref has been consistent."
Wenger, needless to say, saw things differently. "To me it looked a blatant penalty," said the man who is prone to pleading selective myopia. "I asked Kanu if it was a penalty and he said it was. He looked clean through and then Mellberg came over and pushed him away."
In a move that is now becoming a trend - a healthy one that has seemingly come about since Keith Hackett succeeded Philip Don as the referees' supremo - Halsey explained his thinking to a television interviewer. He claimed he gave Henry the option to take the free-kick quickly or have the wall moved back.
"The player said he wanted a quick free-kick. I stood back and made a signal for him to go on and take it. I didn't tell the Villa players 'Move back 10 yards'. I can understand their frustration but I am under no obligation to inform them it was going to be a quick free-kick."
On the balance of things, a perspective from which Villa were disinclined to view the afternoon, Halsey had a fine game. He was always up with the play and was invariably decisive. None of the players booked could justifiably argue with his punishment. The two key rulings may have been debatable, but they were also sustainable.
Villa, who missed the injured Gavin McCann in midfield, flattered to deceive. Juan Pablo Angel, who reputedly interests Arsenal, and Marcus Allback both missed clear-cut chances in a bright opening.
Henry was unhappy at being accused by the home crowd of feigning injury after he was caught in the face by Jlloyd Samuel's hand. When Mellberg brought down Patrick Vieira 20 yards out, the striker drew first blood in a more wholesome way, showing that cunning and opportunism, as well as awesome pace and composed finishing, feature in his armoury.
The second goal had its origins in one of countless incisive passes by Robert Pires, who had earlier seen a stupendous volley turned over acrobatically by Sorensen. Kanu was released to run at Villa's defence and the Nigerian ran into - or was impeded by, depending on your affiliation - the unfortunate Mellberg. The arguments about the legitimacy of the award raged on, yet Henry's fiercely driven spot-kick brooked none.
Goals: Henry (28) 0-1; pen (52) 0-2.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen 7; Delaney 5, Mellberg 4, Johnsen 5, Samuel 5; Hendrie 5 (De La Cruz, 86), Hitlsperger 6, Whittingham 6, Barry 7 (Ridgewell, 87); Angel 6, Allback 5 (Crouch, 86). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Dublin.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 7; Lauren 6, Campbell 7, Cygan 7, Cole 7; Ljungberg 6 (Parlour, 77), Gilberto Silva 6, Vieira 7, Pires 8 (Edu, 77); Kanu 7 (Touré, 77), Henry 8. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Keown.
Referee: M Halsey (Bolton) 8.
Bookings: Aston Villa: Delaney, Mellberg, Whittingham, Barry. Arsenal: Vieira.
Man of the match: Henry.
Attendance: 39,380.Reuse content