Two goals ahead at half-time and coasting, then conceding early in the second period, Arsenal felt the ghosts of Tottenham Hotspur hovering yesterday. Unlike last weekend,however, they rallied to score again and, despite allowing young Ciaran Clark his second goal of the day, secured victory and – albeit briefly – the Premier League leadership for the first time since mid-March.
It was deserved reward for some smooth football on a bitterly cold day after Arsène Wenger, having made seven changes before the Champions' League defeat in Braga, made another seven here. That produced something closer to a first-choice XI although the captain, Cesc Fabregas, is out for three weeks with another hamstring strain.
Even without him the midfield was too fluent for Aston Villa's combination of youngsters, England wingers and, starting for the first time, the 37-year-old Robert Pires. Playing in the centre, he made one surging run and looked little different from the sleek figure who was a member of Arsenal's "Invincibles"of 2003-04, but was replaced at the interval when Gérard Houllier was forced to change to 4-4-2, giving John Carew some proper support at last. The manager has now won only two of his 10 games in charge.
With Gabriel Agbonlahor and Marc Albrighton joining the sick and lame last week, Villa need the remaining senior players to perform at their best, but Carew achieved nothing and the centre-halves, Richard Dunne and James Collins, were vulnerable throughout. "We were poor in the first half," Houlliersaid. "Whether it was too much res-pect or lacking a bit of experience, we never seemed to get started."
Arsenal, in contrast, came out of the traps as if determined to banish the memory of two bad defeats, and the only surprise was that after carving out half-a-dozen chances in the first quarter of the game, they did not take the lead until the 39th minute. Even then the goal stemmed from a calamitous piece of defending by Luke Young and Collins, who virtually collided in moving towards a long clearance by Lukasz Fabianski. The ball was allowed to run to Andrey Arshavin on the left touchline. He still had much to do but finished with aplomb, drifting inside to shoot through a cluster of defenders and defeat Brad Friedel's dive.
Almost immediately the outstanding Arshavin – perhaps feeling at home in the Siberian weather – sent Samir Nasri through to hit the side-netting from a good position, and just before the interval a second goal arrived. Friedel was unlucky in that he made a wonderful, instinctive save to turn Marouane Chamakh's headeraside, only for Arshavin's corner to be volleyed past him by Nasri.
Villa, booed off at the interval, adopted a more positive approach for the second half by replacing Pires with Nathan Delfouneso. There was briefly hope for them, and familiar concern for the visitors, when Clark volleyed his first senior goal at exactlythe same time as Spurs had begun their revival last weekend. "It was a shame we couldn't live for another 10 minutes after that because with what happened last week, they would have been shaky," Houllier said.
But in half that time another slick passing move involving Arshavinand Tomas Rosicky finished with Chamakh stretching to toe-poke home just before Friedel could reach him.
Villa kept going and Clark, after missing one clear chance, headed in off the bar after Dunne rose highest to a corner. The Irish defender finished the game at centre-forward but his absence at the back was evident in added time when Chamakh squared the ball for Jack Wilshere to register his first League goal for Arsenal with a diving header.
It maintained the London side's dominant record against Villa, who have now beaten them only once in 24 meetings. When it was put to Houllier that he had a big job on, he could only sigh: "Yes."
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Arshavin
Match rating: 7/10