Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas bonus makes Villa victory even sweeter

Tonight's 1-1 draw between Sp*rs and Chelsea is further good news for the Gunners and leaves a top four berth looking increasingly achievable. Arsenal now lie in fifth, a single point behind Chelsea and only three behind Tottenham – whose only trump is the game in hand they've still got after the early season postponement that came about as a result of the N17 riots.

Arsenal kept up the pressure yesterday with a scrappy but significant 2-1 win over Aston Villa – the goals coming from a penalty and a set piece, both relative rarities in the roll call of Gunners goals so far this season. It was far from a vintage performance but nevertheless Arsenal got the job done.

The surprise on the team-sheet was the absence of Iggy Miquel. Most match previews had him down to reprise the left-back role, with Koscielny – 'the white Cafu' – taking up the right full-back berth. But Francis Coquelin was instead named at right back and Vermaelen was moved to the left, with Koscielny partnering Per Mertesacker in central defence. Frimpong started in front of this makeshift back four in the absence of the suspended Alex Song.

The disruption did the team no favours as Arsenal struggled to assert themselves, particularly in the first half. Given starting places both Coquelin and Frimpong had a chance to impress – and when called upon both have generally performed well in 2011/12. Unfortunately, neither covered themselves in glory yesterday. Coquelin, despite putting in a valiant effort, struggled at full back against the tricky Charles N'Zogbia, while Manny Frimpong was arguably the weak link in a midfield that was markedly less effective than usual. Ramsey was also guilty of some sloppy passing, probably born of fatigue – he looked leg-weary as the game wore on, and the return of Jack Wilshere in February to relieve some of the burden will be very welcome.

Despite being on the back foot for long periods, however, the Gunners still managed to take the lead. It came from a penalty, about which there could be few complaints. Theo Walcott was clearly tugged back by Ciaran Clark as he broke into the box and referee Jon Moss duly pointed to the spot. Robin van Persie's ensuing penalty kick was emphatic, as he blasted the ball into the roof of the net to notch his 20th of the season.

The Gunners held on to their single goal lead for the first 45 minutes, but there were numerous nervy moments. Arsenal looked particularly vulnerable on the flanks – and not only on the right, as Vermaelen also had his hands full against Marc Albrighton out on the left. Indeed the Belgian, usually rock solid, was not at his best yesterday.

Albrighton's equaliser, the 20,000th goal of the Premier League, was not a classic. It was fortuitous, stemming from a defensive error on Arsenal's part – with both Vermaelen and to a lesser extent Mertesacker being culpable. Nevertheless it put them on the front foot and the Gunners were now really under pressure.

Something needed to change, and Wenger obliged. After throwing on Arshavin and Chamakh against Manchester City to little effect, the manager looked to different options yesterday and substituted Frimpong for Rosicky and Ramsey for Benayoun. Admittedly the Russian also came on for Gervinho, but it was the Czech and the Israeli who had the greater impact. Rosicky immediately took hold of the game, retaining possession well and providing a stabilising influence.

Ultimately it was Yossi who was the hero of the night, however. In the 87th minute Arsenal won a corner – their 15th of the game. The delivery from set pieces has generally improved in recent matches, but frustratingly the Gunners seem singularly unable to direct many into the net – but this time Benayoun met Arteta's whipped-in ball with a strong downward header that left Villa keeper Brad Guzan helpless.

Ultimately Arsenal were not at their best yesterday. But they showed good application to grind out an important win, and that more than anything is the mark of a top four team; to win even when not playing well. As such, it was satisfying to get those three points – and in the light of tonights result their importance is all the more evident. The Gunners are back in action on the 27th rather than Boxing Day thanks to a tube strike, so until then a Happy Christmas to Gooners everywhere.

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