Generous Gunners stumble over finishing line
Aston Villa 2 Arsenal 4
It is a time of year for giving, but Arsenal's generosity knows no bounds.
For the second time in eight days Arsene Wenger's side conspired to make a two-goal lead at half-time look like the most vulnerable position to be in. This time there was to be no repeat of the humiliating collapse against Tottenham Hotspur, yet it was still impossible to ignore the defensive shortcomings that allowed Aston Villa back into a match that should have been well beyond them.
Coasting thanks to first-half goals from Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri, Arsenal were forced to endure a nervous finale after Ciaran Clark struck either side of Marouane Chamakh's 10th goal of the season to give Aston Villa supporters hope of producing the most unlikely of comebacks.
Arsenal ultimately prevailed as Jack Wilshere registered his first Premier League goal for the club with a close-range header in injury time.
Wenger could be forgiven for wondering whether his players take some sort of pleasure from seeing him looking like a tortured soul on the touchline. Arsenal had 18 shots on goal and were so dominant in the first half that the match resembled one of those training sessions in which the defenders have to keep giving the ball back to the attackers to encourage them to have another go at breaking them down.
Villa departed to boos and the suspicion was that this could turn into a rout. Yet, instead of continuing in the same vein in the second half, Arsenal emerged seemingly weighed down by events at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday, when Tottenham triumphed 3-2 after trailing 2-0. Villa, looking much more purposeful without the hugely disappointing Robert Pires -- who was withdrawn at the interval and, on this evidence, would have been better off retiring when he failed to find a club in the summer -- pulled a goal back through Clark's left-footed volley as the Arsenal defence unwisely chose to retreat rather than close the midfielder down.
Villa manager Gerard Houllier reflected how interesting the game would have been had the scoreline remained at 2-1 for a period, but, within four minutes, Arsenal scored again.
Chamakh, who had earlier drawn a brilliant point-blank save from Brad Friedel with a towering header, toe-poked Tomas Rosicky's slide-rule pass beyond the Villa goalkeeper.
Clark pegged Arsenal back again in the 70th minute, when he nodded the ball in off the underside of the crossbar, but Wilshere's diving header -- from Chamakh's unselfish centre -- allowed Wenger to breathe more easily. "You do not always lose when you dominate the game," Wenger said, casting his mind back to the Tottenham fixture. "We were very dominant in the first half. The only regret you have at that stage is that you do not score enough goals. And then, at 2-0 at half-time, you feel among the players that what happened last week had an impact in their heads. When Villa came back to 2-1 it was an interesting test for my team. We could have crumbled or scored again, and we scored again."
With Cesc Fabregas missing because of injury, the onus was on Arsenal's more experienced players to deliver and Arshavin answered the call. The Russian has flattered to deceive on too many occasions, but he shimmered with menace here.
It was Arshavin's goal -- drilled low into the bottom corner after Luke Young and James Collins challenged for the same ball -- that put Arsenal in front and he also created their second with a perfectly weighted corner that Nasri volleyed inside Friedel's near post just before half-time.
Villa's second-half revival enabled them to recover some self-respect, but these are worrying times for a club that has spent the past three seasons ensconced in the top six. Houllier has a dreadful injury list, but he refused to cite that as an excuse for their anaemic first-half performance. "We never got started," the Villa manager said. "In the second half it was a different team. We showed more energy, took more risks and were more daring in what we wanted to achieve. But we have to be honest -- we were beaten by the better team."