Stuttering Gunners fail to take initiative in title race
Aston Villa 0
For two teams engaged in races -- Arsenal have the title race, Villa the race for fourth -- this was 90 minutes of pure opportunity. It went completely unused.
Arsenal would have dearly loved to get a good start to their hellish run of approaching fixtures, with Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool looming. For Villa it was a chance to put pressure on Tottenham, on whom they have two games in hand, and demonstrate that they are really in this race for fourth.
Both sides had chances -- open goals, no less -- but both squandered them, although one senses that neither Martin O'Neill nor Arsene Wenger can have many complaints.
O'Neill had mused this week that Arsenal are a side which plays football without physicality. Thus it was that Emile Heskey assumed the role of troublemaker-in-chief, using his size and strength to good effect amid the Arsenal back four, and earning a standing ovation when substituted.
It was he who set the tone for Villa, contriving an early attack in the fourth minute. The ball arrived at Gabriel Agbonlahor, Heskey the conduit, and with Thomas Vermaelen caught completely by surprise, Agbonlahor spun and chopped a left-footed shot across goal, his effort just tipped away by Manuel Almunia. It was an early warning, or at least it should have been.
The Arsenal back four clearly didn't pick up on the smoke signals, and the deep-lying Heskey was again allowed to be Villa's aggressive architect three minutes later, his perfectly weighted through ball setting up Stiliyan Petrov in a prime position to cross.
In the ball came, in the form of a cute chip, but Agbonlahor couldn't keep his header down.
Seeing that move come to nothing, Heskey next tried to go it alone, bearing down on goal with an off-the-pace Vermaelen snapping at his heels. The Arsenal defender launched himself into a ill-judged tackle, deservedly picking up an early caution and conceding a free-kick which Ashley Young sent inches wide of the top left corner.
It was unfortunate for Young, for it was a clean strike off his gunge-coloured boots, but he was enjoying himself in any case, finding it fair going on the right wing against Gael Clichy.
The Frenchman was left face down on the deck on the half-hour, Young's swivel having been too much for him. His adversary went haring for the box, with both Heskey and Agbonlahor to aim for, but his cross drifted to Stewart Downing at the far post. The winger caught the ball on the half-volley but steered it over the bar. It is all very well and good having chances such as these, but failing to take them against opposition such as Arsenal is fraught with peril.
In truth, beyond a Denilson volley, which had been routinely cleared by Brad Friedel, they had come up with little. Even Cesc Fabregas, who had such an impact as a substitute at the Emirates earlier in the season with a free-kick, could not recreate the magic.
The Arsenal captain had his chances, though. The pick of them came after James Collins had left Aaron Ramsey in a heap outside the Villa box, but Fabregas tried his luck under the wall to no avail. His second opening came as the fourth official held up his board indicating two minutes of first-half added time.
The midfielder found himself granted a free passage through the middle, Petrov for some reason stepping off, but his shot hit the post. Tomas Rosicky, who could have benefited from the rebound, found his path blocked by his own team-mate, Ramsey.
Neither side were much better at converting on the other side of the break. In the early minutes Friedel fumbled badly with Eduardo lurking but Richard Dunne somehow scrambled the ball clear, and then Downing spurned a virtual open goal.
His header at the far post from an Ashley Young cross couldn't have been simpler. The Holte End even roared their congratulation as he made contact, but the joy fast turned to bewildered fury as the ball joined them in the stands.
Downing held his head in embarrassment, as well he might, but he was not alone. Andrei Arshavin twisted his way past Carlos Cuellar and tried to chip Friedel, the ball flicking off the American to Rosicky.
With time his friend and the goal at his mercy, Rosicky drove it into the underside of the bar. The ball thundered down, hit the line, but did not cross it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)