Benayoun strikes late on to steal Albrighton's thunder
Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2
Published 22/12/2011 | 05:00
This was a match that the statisticians will savour for rather longer than Alex McLeish. Not only did Robin van Persie draw level with Thierry Henry's all-time Arsenal record of 34 league goals in a calendar year but, in equalising, Marc Albrighton became the scorer of the 20,000th Premier League goal.
The rather more unwanted fact for McLeish was that he has now presided over five home defeats in seven matches to leave Aston Villa only five points above the relegation zone.
Indeed, while Albrighton will receive a £20,000 cheque for a charity of his choice, it was Yossi Benayoun who may have provided the most valuable moment of the night with his 87th-minute winner taking Arsenal level with Chelsea in fourth place.
Depleted by injuries to five defenders, including all four of his senior full-backs, Arsene Wenger began with Francis Coquelin as a temporary right-back and thrust Emmanuel Frimpong into central midfield to cover for the suspended Alex Song.
Arsenal's first goal came against the run of play, after Ciaran Clark wrapped his arm around Theo Walcott's chest in the area. The penalty decision of referee John Moss was as inevitable as Van Persie's emphatic finish.
The overall pattern of the match was unaffected by the goal, with Villa constantly threatening Wojciech Szczesny's penalty area through Albrighton and Charles N'Zogbia, while Arsenal actually created the better chances through their quick counter-attacks. Aaron Ramsey had the best first-half opportunity to double Arsenal's advantage, slicing a shot wide when Van Persie's clever pass had presented a clear sight of goal.
Villa's equaliser was certainly deserved and, while Wenger will point to a clear defensive error, the mix-up between Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker was a result of the pressure they had been under.
Vermaelen had tried to head the ball across the penalty area to his team-mate but it was short of weight and, with Mertesacker hesitant, Albrighton pounced.
Both teams had chances to clinch victory but Arsenal were the more clinical. Van Persie, for once, was the provider, delivering a corner that was turned in at close range by Benayoun. Alan Hutton was clearly frustrated by the perceived injustice of another defeat, needlessly getting himself sent off for two injury-time bookings.
Van Persie's next chance to extend his own goalscoring run will be against Wolves, but Arsenal will await today's High Court ruling on the legality of the Tube strike before deciding whether the match will take place on St Stephen's Day or December 27. (© Daily Telegraph, London)