Arsenal's capacity to produce moments of sublime brilliance served them well again yesterday to ensure the pressure on Manchester United at the top of the Premiership retains all its intensity. With a game in hand, Arsène Wenger's side overtook Liverpool, who themselves led the table for three hours on Saturday, to move back into second place, one point adrift.
It was not Dennis Bergkamp, this time, who delivered the coup de grâce, but the Dutch magician's heir apparent, Robert Pires, whose technical gifts are every bit as sumptuous as his senior colleague. Peter Schmeichel, who was in goal for Denmark when Davor Suker did something remarkably similar for Croatia in Euro 96, must have felt he had been taken back in time.
Arsenal will find it hard to decide who has scored their goal of the season and there have been many candidates but context must be taken into account. This one came with Wenger's team under heavy pressure, six minutes after David Seaman had preserved their half-time lead with a splendid penalty save. Villa, transformed after a poor first half, sensed they could crack Arsenal's depleted defence. But when Jlloyd Samuel lost possession on the left, Fredrik Ljungberg's 40-yard diagonal pass, superbly delivered, found Pires with only George Boateng for company, and what followed had even Graham Taylor, the Villa manager, drooling.
One flick took the ball over Boateng's head and the next touch chipped it over the advancing Schmeichel, whose movement off the line left him a little exposed but still required Pires to get his execution just right. To the delight of Arsenal's following in a 41,520 crowd, the largest at Villa Park since Manchester United's visit in August, he did just that.
"We won because we have great players, but it was more than that today," Wenger said. "Villa put us under pressure, especially towards the end, and we had to battle and show character to win. But if you follow Arsenal you will see great goals because we have players like Robert who can score them."
They also have, to the satisfaction of Sven Goran Eriksson, watching in the stands, an England goalkeeper who seems to be recapturing the form some thought had deserted him for good. His one-handed penalty save from Gareth Barry, preventing an equaliser to Edu's first-half goal, revealed the physical agility and quickness of thought that have been Seaman's hallmarks.
"Physically, he is in his best shape since I came here," Wenger said. "But more than that he remains very ambitious and has worked very hard to regain his fitness. He seems laid back, but he wants to go to the World Cup as England's No 1 and perhaps he feared he would lose that status."
Impressed as he was with what turned out to be the winning goal, Taylor was disappointed with Villa. His assertion that they would require no encouragement to raise their game after performing abjectly against Blackburn in their previous outing had proved peculiarly wide of the mark, in the first half at least.
For all the example set by the German teenager Thomas Hitzlsperger lucky to be let off with a warning from referee Steve Dunn after putting Patrick Vieira on his backside Arsenal enjoyed far too much comfort in midfield, while a Villa attack weakened by the absence of the injured Juan Pablo Angel only occasionally threatened Arsenal's makeshift back four.
Though he forced Seaman to make his one save of the opening half, Darius Vassell would not have impressed Eriksson and it was little wonder that Taylor made bold changes at the interval. Off went Vassell, troubled in any case by a calf injury, and Hassan Kachloul, who had been ineffective, to be replaced by Dion Dublin and Mustapha Hadji, who immediately formed a new front two, freeing Paul Merson to supplement the attack, rather than try to lead it.
The improvement was startling. Indeed, had it not been for Seaman's penalty save and Pires's wonder goal, Taylor might have seen his side turn the game on its head just as Arsenal did at Highbury in December, after Villa had been two goals to the good. But when Lee Dixon, 38 yesterday, had handed the home side a birthday gift by bringing Barry down in the box, Villa missed their opportunity. The move, which involved Dublin and Hadji, was their best to that point and deserved reward. But Barry, nominated as penalty taker in Angel's absence, saw Seaman fling an arm upwards to beat down his kick before falling on the ball.
How Schmeichel might have wished his hands had been so reliable. Villa's veteran had made an uncharacteristic fumble when Sylvain Wiltord drove the ball at him from a 16th-minute free-kick. He tried bravely to redeem himself as Vieira charged at the loose ball but was powerless when the ball spun away again for Edu to drive it home.
Villa, given a rocket by Taylor at half-time, hit back with vigour, but after Barry had missed and Pires had mystified, Dublin's headed goal from Hadji's cross served only to set up a gripping finale, which Arsenal survived to keep their treble hopes alive at least until Wednesday. Then their fate in the Champions' League will be decided in Turin, a game which may well see the return of Tony Adams after Igor Stepanovs yesterday limped off with a thigh strain.
Goals: Edu (16) 0-1; Pires (60) 0-2; Dublin (68) 1-2.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Schmeichel 4; Delaney 7, Mellberg 7, Staunton 6, Samuel 5; Kachloul 4 (Hadji 7, h-t), Hitzlsperger 5, Boateng 5, Barry 7; Merson 6 (Hendrie, 77), Vassell 5 (Dublin 8, h-t). Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Stone.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman 7; Luzhny 5, Stepanovs 6 (Dixon 5, h-t), Campbell 6, Lauren 6; Ljungberg 7 (Grimandi 5, 70), Vieira 7, Edu 7, Pires 9; Bergkamp 6 (Kanu 5, 75), Wiltord 7. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Tavlaridis.
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol) 7.
Bookings: Villa: Boateng. Arsenal: Luzhny.
Man of the match: Pires.
Attendance: 41,520.Reuse content