Van Persie on double as Arsenal buy some more time
Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 2
With Arsenal's celebrated clock showing 5.05, time was about to be called on their season.
Out of the Carling Cup and the title race, facing formidable opposition in the Champions League and trailing 2-0 in the FA Cup, the sands of time were turning into quicksand for Arsenal.
Fast-forward 15 minutes, long enough to make anyone famous in Arsene Wenger's world let alone Andy Warhol's, and Arsenal led 3-2.
It was crazy stuff, the tie turned on its head, jeers turned into cheers as Arsenal finally turned on the afterburners and the style. Robin van Persie swept in two penalties, either side of a bizarre Theo Walcott goal, and suddenly all was sweetness and light at the Emirates. With injury-time completed, and the clock now signaling 5.54, Arsenal were considering a fifth-round tie at Sunderland or Middlesbrough.
Much credit for the turnaround must go to Wenger. Marching down the tunnel after Richard Dunne and Darren Bent put Villa in charge, Arsenal's manager had to stir his players.
According to Wenger, there were no raised voices in the dressing-room despite their season flirting with a beast called oblivion.
Composure reigned. Wenger went to work on his players' minds, telling them to believe in themselves and to go out there and show their resilience. He tweaked their tactical instructions, ordering them to close Villa down quicker in the opposition half. Pressing higher when chasing possession and playing with a quicker tempo when the ball was regained, Arsenal set about rescuing their season.
In the away dressing-room, Alex McLeish warned his players that Arsenal would come after them. Villa's manager also praised them for their first-half exertions, for producing some of the best football they have played under him. Strong defensively, Villa counter-attacked well in the first period.
Arsenal sought to get at them from the opening whistle but Villa's defence stood firm for 45 minutes. Walcott ran at Stephen Warnock but failed to make much headway.
Arsenal's best hope appeared via set-pieces. When Van Persie tapped a free-kick to Thomas Vermaelen, the man the fans called "the Verminator" thundered in a 35-yarder that Shay Given did superbly to punch clear. Van Persie then drilled a free-kick into the Villa wall.
Villa simply hit back. As the game passed the half-hour mark, Dunne lifted the ball down the left for Robbie Keane to exploit poor positioning by Francis Coquelin. Keane tried to hook the ball across to the unmarked Bent but Per Mertesacker managed to block.
McLeish's men were building momentum, soon seizing the lead. Stiliyan Petrov played the ball down the inside-left channel and there was Keane, timing his run well, collecting the ball and guiding it to the far post.
Arsenal's defence was caught out badly, Laurent Koscielny too slow and timid when Dunne came calling, the Irishman heading unerringly past Lukasz Fabianski. From Keane to Dunne, this was a goal made in Tallaght.
Villa then needed to demonstrate their defensive qualities. Warnock put in a great tackle to deny Walcott not once but twice. Given then kept out Aaron Ramsey's shot at the near post. When Dunne fouled Tomas Rosicky, earning a booking, Given had to be at his very best to keep out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's eventual shot.
Arsenal lacked a finish, a reality highlighted by Bent's brilliance down the other end as the half closed. Fabianski managed to beat away Bent's first strike, pushing the ball to one side. The angle was so tight, almost defying geometry, but Bent was equal to the equation. He fired the ball back in, triggering an even greater outpouring of joy from the near 6,000 Villa fans, who had travelled south in 70 coaches paid for by the club's owner Randy Lerner.
That free ride back was looking even more enticing at 5.05. Not even the most pessimistic of Villa fans could have anticipated a collapse of England batting proportions. But it happened.
Arsenal finally raised their game. Alex Song sent Ramsey into the area where he was sent flying by a daft challenge from Dunne. It looked a second yellow as well as a penalty but Mike Jones considered the spot-kick sufficient punishment. Van Persie played the executioner, placing the ball firmly to Given's right. Those home fans who had expressed dissent at the break certainly changed their tune, joining in the exhortation of "come on Arsenal".
It was like an immense adrenalin shot had been injected into Arsenal's blood-stream. Rosicky helped Walcott sprint down the inside-right corridor, his pace taking him past Warnock. Walcott turned the ball across, slightly tamely, and Given was able to parry the danger away.
Or so it seemed. Alan Hutton was first to the loose ball which he attempted to lash clear; it caught Walcott and bounced in.
Villa were stunned, gasping for air on the ropes, their senses dishevelled by another counter. Bent tracked back but his challenge on Koscielny was clumsy, catching the defender. Penalty. Van Persie again took charge, putting the ball to Given's left before leaping into the arms of Thierry Henry on the sideline.
Villa fumed, arguing that the Dutchman should not have been on the pitch to score his 25th of the season, because they felt he deliberately elbowed Carlos Cuellar. Soon it was full-time and the clock was still running on Arsenal's season. (© Daily Telegraph, London)