Arsene Wenger last night lit a claret-and-blue touch paper of resentment and anger by accusing Aston Villa of putting undue pressure on the referee Lee Mason during a drama of passion and commitment in which Arsenal surrendered a two-goal lead, and with it the chance to return to the top four.
The two managers clashed on the touchline, with Martin O'Neill being restrained by his assistant, John Robertson, and Mason also intervening, after Wenger reacted angrily to Villa being awarded a penalty. Later the Arsenal manager revealed just why he was so annoyed, although he also attempted to dismiss the incident as "nothing".
"I know how it works here," Wenger said, "at half-time the referee gets stick and after that every 50-50 decision goes the other way." The penalty, he stated, was a "turning point" that should never have happened with Gabriel Agbonlahor guilty of fouling William Gallas in the build-up while Villa were dismissed as "long-ball" and reliant on set pieces.
O'Neill, naturally, bridled. Agbonlahor was at the centre of his indignation, too. "Gabriel Agbonlahor was fouled in the build-up to their first goal and the referee chose to ignore it," he said. "It was unbelievable obstruction." Asked why Wenger was – not for the first time – claiming conspiracy, O'Neill said: "I could not give you a response to that. I think the referee must have seen it [the incident] at half-time himself."
However, he did concede that Robertson had challenged Mason in the tunnel. "John Robertson spoke to the referee and asked him to explain his decision," O'Neill said. "He just asked and the referee chose not to give an answer."
Wenger's argument was that Mason delivered his response in the second half – by giving more decisions in favour of Villa than his own players. That was harsh, unfair and overshadowed an exhilarating encounter. Wenger has been here before, of course, and it is a sign of the slender title chance his team now has that he is getting quite so agitated and on such a regular basis.
It was some ding-dong, some tussle. A real maelstrom of emotion with Villa, all turbo-charged confidence and soaring belief, out of the traps at pace and rattling the frame of the Arsenal goal three times in the opening period.
A corner from Gareth Barry and Steve Sidwell easily stole in front of Alex Song to crash his header against the post. Then a free-kick was beaten out, it fell to Luke Young on the area's edge whose fierce half-volley was deflected narrowly over.
The pressure built. Agbonlahor cut inside and forced Manuel Almunia into a block only for the ball to run to Sidwell. The goal beckoned but Gallas threw himself to deflect the ball wide.
How could it continue? Somehow it did. Ashley Young, increasingly dominant, increasingly elusive, curled a deep cross for James Milner to run on to. He met it on the volley only for Almunia to tip the ball onto the post and grasp the rebound.
Again it was Ashley Young providing. This time a free-kick, and it reached Curtis Davies who spun and delicately lifted a chip over Almunia. The ball cannoned off the crossbar.
And then, astonishingly, Arsenal, who lost Johan Djourou in the warm-up and then saw Song limp off, scored. Villa were sloppy. Nigel Reo-Coker tried to play the ball out, Denilson charged down and ran through to slip a shot off an incredulous Brad Friedel and into the net. Surely Villa would go in level? They didn't. But only because of a wonderfully athletic piece of defending from Bacary Sagna after Agbonlahor had reached Reo-Coker's cross and headed over Almunia. The ball was looping in but the right-back sprinted back to scissor-kick it off the line – and into Almunia's hands. Incredible
Little wonder O'Neill shook his head in disbelief. "I thought we could have been four or five goals in front," he later said. "We were absolutely brilliant and certainly got rocked by the goal." They were soon rocked again. And this time it was a goal of Arsenal vintage.
Abou Diaby nutmegged Davies down the touchline, sliding the ball to the overlapping Emmanuel Eboué and then powered on to reach the return and lift his shot past Friedel. Over in an instant. A goal to aspire to. Once more Arsenal danced through and substitute Aaron Ramsey miscued, the ball ran to Robin van Persie and his side-footed shot thumped off the post. Then, at the other end, Gallas lunged. This time, however, he caught the legs of Agbonlahor, just inside the area, as the striker galloped onto a through-ball and Barry, after a delay, crashed the penalty powerfully past Almunia. It made for a finale.
Villa pushed and pushed and finally, a minute into second-half injury time, Ashley Young headed a centre back across goal, Barry found Zat Knight, off Sagna's boot, and the big defender struck a sweet shot beyond an unsighted Almunia.
It meant Villa remained in fourth, three points ahead of Arsenal, rather than being leapfrogged by Wenger's side, and slipping to fifth. With that could have come a fierce psychological blow – along with a few verbal ones – and the touch paper was burning.
Goals: Denilson (40) 0-1; Diaby (49) 0-2; Barry pen (65) 1-2; Knight (90) 2-2.
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1): Friedel; Reo-Coker, Davies, Knight, L Young; Petrov; Milner, Sidwell, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Harewood, Delfouneso, Salifou, Shorey, Gardner, Osbourne.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Touré, Silvestre; Eboué, Denilson, Song (Ramsey, 43), Nasri (Clichy, 82); Diaby; Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Vela, Wilshere, Bendtner.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Aston Villa Reo-Coker, Petrov, Agbonlahor, Barry; Arsenal Touré, Diaby, Van Persie, Song.
Man of the match: A Young.
Premier League Table: Misfiring Gunners
Arsenal's stuttering season
Arsenal 1-0 West Brom, 16 Aug
New boy Samir Nasri gets the season off to a flyer with a goal inside the first five minutes.
Fulham 1-0 Arsenal, 23 August
The Gunners show the first signs of defensive frailty, going down to a soft Hangeland header.
Blackburn 0-4 Arsenal, 13 Sept
Adebayor bags a hat-trick as Wenger's men show the swagger they've become famous for.
Arsenal 1-2 Hull, 27 September
The unthinkable happens. Hull net twice in four second-half minutes – including a stunner from Geovanni – to win at the Emirates.
Fenerbahce 2-5 Arsenal, 21 Oct
Their indifferent league form is forgotten as five different scorers, including teenager Aaron Ramsey, grab goals in Turkey.
Arsenal 4-4 Spurs, 29 October
The Gunners dominate for large periods against their bitter rivals but somehow conspire to throw away a certain win at the death.
Stoke 2-1 Arsenal, 1 November
Two Rory Delap throw-ins cause havoc in the defence and Stoke nick the win. Van Persie is sent off.
Arsenal 2-1 Man Utd, 8 November
With everyone writing them off, Wenger inspires his depleted side to a famous victory over United. Nasri gets both goals.
Arsenal 0-2 Aston Villa, 15 Nov
Once again, just as they appear to be getting back to their best, they crumble. Villa fully deserve the points at the Emirates.
Man City 3-0 Arsenal, 22 Nov
Wenger's men appear to be in freefall as Gallas is stripped of the captaincy for criticising his team-mates prior to this defeat .
Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal, 30 Nov
They do it again! Van Persie scores twice in three minutes to shock the league leaders.
Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool, 21 Dec
Van Persie puts them one-up but they can't hold on and Spurs old boy Robbie Keane nets a scorcher.