Villa exposed by Arsenal's exhibitionists

Arsenal 3 - Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Online

So, it is one game from the half-century undefeated in the Premiership; one step from heaven. And what more apposite stage on which to arrive there than at Old Trafford next Sunday? But that sumptuous banquet can wait while the aficionados relish the delicacies of this hors-d'oeuvre prepared for them here yesterday. Even the head chef had time to emerge from the kitchen and enjoy the fruits of his labours. "Technically, it was quality; the decision-making was quality and the movement was quality," declared Arsène Wenger. "I must say, it was very enjoyable. It looks to me as if this team just gets better and better."

So, it is one game from the half-century undefeated in the Premiership; one step from heaven. And what more apposite stage on which to arrive there than at Old Trafford next Sunday? But that sumptuous banquet can wait while the aficionados relish the delicacies of this hors-d'oeuvre prepared for them here yesterday. Even the head chef had time to emerge from the kitchen and enjoy the fruits of his labours. "Technically, it was quality; the decision-making was quality and the movement was quality," declared Arsène Wenger. "I must say, it was very enjoyable. It looks to me as if this team just gets better and better."

The evidence that the Arsenal manager is not over-egging things with that statement is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact his club held their AGM recently. You probably won't have heard much about it. No takeover threats, no manager under duress - indeed this one is due to extend his contract by three years - and no prima donnas falling out with him.

If ever there were a club whose supporters had absolutely no cause for complaint it is the champions, who yesterday enhanced the likelihood of repeating that feat with an authoritative victory after Sir Alex Ferguson's men had yielded two more points at St Andrew's.

Now for the collision of the champions-elect - if Arsenal can be described thus at this absurdly early stage - and the team who, who thus far, have somehow forgotten to turn up. Victory next Sunday would extend the London side's lead over Manchester United to a remarkable 14 points. "It would still be too early," was Wenger's response when asked whether that would prove an unassailable lead. "Maybe if it was January or February, it would be difficult for them to recover. But it's good to have a reasonable distance between you and them. They have too good a squad to write them off with a victory next Sunday."

Before then, anyway, the Gunners travel to Panathinaikos for a Champions' League fixture. Almost certainly, their captain, Patrick Vieira, will not travel. He was the victim of a crude challenge in the second half by JLloyd Samuel which left him with a sprained ankle. It was no better than Lauren's tackle on Gareth Barry before the interval which left the midfielder with ligament damage.

A less benign official than Graham Poll may have considered a red card rather than the yellow that he actually meted out in both cases. They were two of six cautions during a contest which occasionally threatened to overheat, notably when Jose Antonio Reyes was knocked over by in the area by Lee Hendrie. The referee was unmoved, but an altercation between Reyes and Hendrie ensued and the latter went down as though head-butted, though contact was minimal. Not for the first occasion, Poll had cause to speak to a player whose undoubted talent is diminished by a dubious temperament.

Arsenal's displeasure over Vieira's enforced substitution was eased somewhat by a third goal, one in which his replacement, the 20-year-old Mathieu Flamini, was significantly involved. The young Frenchman - yes, yet another - had sauntered down the right flank and crossed low to the edge of the area. Thierry Henry played the ball on, and Pires, arriving late, dispatched a venomous shot past Stefan Postma from an angle.

Indeed if Postma, the 28-year-old Dutch goalkeeper in for Thomas Sorensen, who was missing with a back injury, had not thrust arms, legs, trunk, anything he could find, at the ball to deny Henry, Reyes, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires, in particular, 3-1 could well have been 7-1, or worse. The statistics tell a damning story. Arsenal shots on target: 16; Aston Villa: 3. Wenger's men were irresistible, and Reyes, developing such a perceptive eye for a pass when not embarking on some scintillating runs, is becoming such a natural foil for Henry.

The problem for Villa was that they had the audacity to score first, albeit immediately after Sol Campbell had smacked their bar with a header. Not the cleverest idea. Far from unnerving them, Hendrie's early opener, a marvellous, curling drive which eluded Jens Lehmann, created within them an intense craving for goals which simply had to be sated.

Even when Peter Whittingham, who replaced Barry, came close to plundering a second for Villa it served as no kind of warning to Arsenal. If one goal was recoverable, two would be problematic, even for a team who have been scoring at a rate of over three a game. That would be the assumption. It was clearly not Arsenal's.

David O'Leary, who like his Arsenal counterpart, Wenger, intends to extend his contract until 2008, had constructed a team who for 45 minutes had frustrated all but the best of Arsenal's endeavours. An equaliser from Pires's penalty, after Henry had been felled by Mark Delaney, and their second goal, fashioned by Reyes and converted with aplomb by Henry with added time ebbing away, meant that the second period was exhibition time for the hosts.

After the interval, Postma remained his obstructive self, while Juan Pablo Angel, who had been away on international duty with Columbia, emerged late as a substitute, but without reward. "You can only admire," reflected O'Leary of the team who now grace the club at which he still holds the record for appearances. You could only concur.

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