Sunday 18 March 2018

Wenger praises 'perfect' win as Gunners go top

Manager salutes striker Giroud who is ‘on top of his game’

Spot-kick: Olivier Giroud sends Brad Guzan the wrong way to open the scoring for Arsenal
Spot-kick: Olivier Giroud sends Brad Guzan the wrong way to open the scoring for Arsenal
Jack Grealish made his first home appearance since he was banished to the U-21s after footage emerged of him partying in a Manchester nightclub
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud celebrates at the end of the match
Aston Villa's Scott Sinclair and Rudy Gestede look dejected

Jeremy Wilson

The joyous chant that continued to ring out around a deserted and otherwise depressed Villa Park until long after the final whistle would have seemed scarcely credible only 10 days ago.

"We are top of the league," hollered the Arsenal fans. It was sung repeatedly and delivered with a conviction to suggest that last Wednesday's Champions League Greek Lazarus act really might have a transformative impact on the collective self-confidence of the club.

Arsene Wenger has had plenty of teams during this past decade with the technical quality to sustain a title challenge but few who have responded with such nerve and resilience to adversity.

The crisis that briefly threatened after Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla joined an already lengthy casualty list has been emphatically extinguished and, as well as unexpectedly taking their place in today's Champions League draw, Arsenal will go into next Monday's Premier League summit meeting with Manchester City one point ahead of the title favourites.

With eight goals, two clean sheets and three wins, Wenger's one word description of the past fortnight was simple. "Perfect," he said. Some wider context, of course, is still provided by Aston Villa's already desperate situation.

We are frequently told that the Premier League has never been more competitive and unpredictable but, on the evidence of this most routine Arsenal win, there is still a great, gaping chasm between the top and the bottom.

Remi Garde was Wenger's first signing as Arsenal manager almost 20 years ago and, after a result that already leaves Villa eight points adrift of safety, he could be forgiven for questioning whether his mentor was right in advising him to take the job.

Yes, Arsenal were clinical when they needed to be and solid defensively, but they only occasionally had to get out of neutral to see off opponents who have now not won in the league since August.

Boos, inevitably, again rang out both at half-time and on the final whistle.

The gloom at Villa Park stands in direct contrast to the mood at Arsenal, especially following a match in which Olivier Giroud and Petr Cech reached notable personal landmarks.

Giroud's eighth-minute penalty was his 50th Premier League goal and, for all the criticism that he attracts, achieved in fewer games than such club greats as Dennis Bergkamp, Robin van Persie and Robert Pires.

Even more significant was Cech's achievement in equalling David James' all-time record of 169 Premier League clean sheets.

Arsenal were soon into their stride here and, for all the controversy about their first goal, they needed only the simplest tactic to threaten Villa.

Mathieu Flamini lofted a well-weighted pass behind Alan Hutton and in the direction of Theo Walcott.

The England forward's selection out wide on the left has allowed Arsenal to retain a comparable attacking balance without Sanchez and, after comfortably winning a battle of pace with Hutton, he was bundled to the floor.

Referee Kevin Friend initially appeared unimpressed but, following several seconds to contemplate Walcott's incessant appeals, pointed to the penalty spot.

Villa were incredulous at how Friend seemed swayed by Arsenal protests, especially as neither assistant was flagging for an infringement, although the subsequent replays did suggest that the decision was ultimately correct.


Giroud had also scored a penalty in his hat-trick in the midweek win against Olympiakos and was similarly clinical in aiming his finish to the left of Brad Guzan.

As well as his half-century of league goals, it was Giroud's ninth in Arsenal's last nine away games.

The goal sucked what little intensity there had been out of Villa and Arsenal were soon content to defend relatively deeply, recycle possession and wait for the chance to mount quick counter-attacks.

Their second goal was a perfect execution of this strategy. After Aaron Ramsey had punished Idrissa Gana for hesitating on the ball inside Arsenal's half, Giroud fed Mesut Ozil who, in turn, released Walcott down the left.

Walcott duly dissected the Villa defence by finding Ozil, who, with the goal at his mercy, showed his selfless love of an assist by squaring the ball for Ramsey to apply the finishing touch to what was a box-to-box move.

It was Ozil's 13th assist of this Premier League season - more than any player in the top five European leagues - and sufficient to send social media into outrage at David Moyes' verdict in the Sky Sports studio of the "jury still being out" on the German World Cup winner.

It was only minute 38 but the match was over as a meaningful contest.

Yes, Villa did then push forward with admirable effort during a far more encouraging second half but the collective lack of attacking quality and pace was also glaring. Scott Sinclair forced a reasonable save from Cech, Leandro Bacuna headed a good chance over, Gana lashed a shot wide from outside the area and Rudy Gestede's glancing header would have threatened the goal with firmer contact.

Garde eventually resorted to the introduction of Jack Grealish in the 77th minute for what was his first home appearance since he was banished to the U-21s after footage emerged of him partying in a Manchester nightclub.

"Jack Grealish: he drinks when he wants," sang the Arsenal fans. Their confidence was well founded, with Grealish's impact negligible and Arsenal confirming their place at the Premier League summit for the first time this season.

"It has been a great week for us, but don't worry, we've had some bad ones too, so this balances it," added Wenger, who had special words of praise for Giroud, who became the seventh player to score 50 goals for Arsenal.

"Olivier is at the top of his game. He is questioned sometimes but finally the numbers get people to realise he is a good player. I think he has improved technically, his link play is better and he is an interesting option too for a long ball.

"He does not have electric pace. He is more a player who likes to bring others in, so not spectacular in his runs with the ball. But he is a very important player for the team and mentally very strong."

Aston Villa 0-2 Arsenal

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