Arsenal 2 Aston Villa 2
This was a cup tie which showed why foreign players want to play in England, and why English clubs want to play foreigners. It was fast and furious, enterprising and open, and it was dominated by the goals of a Dutchman and a Trinidadian.
A brace apiece from Dennis Bergkamp and Dwight Yorke ensured parity in this Coca-Cola Cup semi-final first leg, but the scoreline was an inaccurate barometer of the game. The stadium may have been Arsenal's but the ball was Villa's. Their passing was measured and their movement imaginative, they were everything Bruce Rioch wants Arsenal to be. On the evidence of last night, and even taking into account Arsenal's injuries, he has some way to go.
Four months ago Aston Villa came to Highbury, defended, and were beaten. Their manager, Brian Little, admitted their attitude was a mistake and promised to attack this time.
Such pledges often prove to be empty bluster but Little was true to his word. Andy Townsend tested David Seaman in the fifth minute and although Savo Milosevic then shot so wide the ball went for a throw-in, the idea was there even if the execution was missing.
Villa's control stemmed from midfield. The Arsenal quartet did not look too impressive on paper; on grass they were even worse. Mark Draper and Townsend dictated the game; Tommy Johnson lit it up. For 27 minutes Arsenal barely got out of their half. Highbury was quiet and anxious.
But, as Auxerre and Parma can testify, it takes more than polished passing to overawe Arsenal and, on 27 minutes, they pro- duced a high quality move of their own. Bergkamp found Paul Merson who played the ball into Ian Wright. He laid it back and the Dutchman drove it in from 30 yards without breaking stride.
Six minutes later he struck again. Reacting first to a hurried clearance from Martin Keown, he slickly dummied Mark Bosnich before slipping the ball through the goalkeeper's legs. It was his 13th goal of the season.
Villa were stunned, but not bowed. Draper continued to conduct the midfield and, six minutes from the break, they were back in the game. A series of defensive howlers from Arsenal culminated in Yorke scoring from close range.
Arsenal gained some measure of possession after the interval but Villa were still the better side and, after 73 minutes, they drew level. Johnson freed Milosevic on the left and the Serb's excellent cross was headed in at the far post by Yorke.
Yorke should have scored his 19th of the season six minutes later. Johnson struck the bar from 20 yards but, as Yorke closed in to complete his hat- trick, Seaman made an instinctive save. Arsenal, too, could have won it, Merson sending Ray Parlour clear, only for Bosnich to deny him.
Villa will fancy their chances of reaching a record-equalling seventh final at Villa Park next Wednesday - but they will recall that less than a year ago Arsenal defeated them 4-0 on their own ground.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Linighan, Keown, Winterburn; Merson, Jensen, Hillier, Helder (Parlour, 65); Bergkamp, I Wright. Substitutes not used: Hartson, Morrow.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton; Charles, Draper, Townsend, Johnson, A Wright; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: McGrath, Taylor, Oakes (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland).