Arsenal hung onto top spot of the Premiership table after a testing 1-1 draw at home to Aston Villa overnight. Arsene Wenger’s side were less than a minute away from suffering a first defeat of the season at Emirates Stadium but substitute Nicklas Bendtner’s late, late goal stole a point from a Villa side that had previously taken the lead through Philippe Senderos’ first-half own goal.
The return of Abou Diaby to the left side of the midfield prompted a tweak in personnel by the Arsenal manager which saw Alexandr Hleb pushed over to the right and Theo Walcott moved up front to partner Emmanuel Adebayor. Apart from those changes it was an unchanged team to the one that started at Birmingham last weekend; Manuel Almunia in goals behind a back four of Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, Philippe Senderos and Gael Clichy, with the central-midfield combination of Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas completing a strong side.
The first half was quite an open affair, with Adebayor creating the first chance of the match for Walcott after seven minutes, but the young Englishman’s effort was brilliantly prevented from entering the bottom left corner by an outstanding save by Scott Carson. Aston Villa also looked bright early on with both Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young using their pace to good effect against Gallas and Senderos. The best Arsenal chance of the half fell to Senderos soon after, but he could only slice wide after Carson had spilled the ball after attempting to claim Fabregas’ corner kick.
I felt Senderos should have done better with the chance and he was unfortunately made to pay moments later when he inadvertedly diverted Young’s low cross into his own net to give Aston Villa the lead. In fairness to Senderos, it was a tough ball to defend against but on the other hand he did make a bit of a meal of it and looked understandly disappointed when the ball hit the back of the net.
After the goal Villa were forced to make a couple of changes due to injury with Nigel Reo-Coker replaced by Zat Knight and Curtis Davies – who, it was later revealed, snapped his achilles’ tendon – replaced by Isaiah Osbourne. Both Villa and Arsenal then had excellent chances to score, with Shaun Maloney’s fierce drive kept out by a marvellous save by Almunia and Fabregas shooting woefully wide from eight yards out after being teed up by Adebayor.
1-0 Villa at the break and Wenger’s men were looking a little shaky. In my opinion Villa had looked the more dangerous side despite Arsenal dominating defence and the front pairing of Walcott and Adebayor were not really working well together. I had hoped for Bendtner and Adebayor to start the match together up front and was delighted when the Danish striker entered the game on the hour mark, replacing an out-of-sorts Diaby. Walcott moved the right and Hleb shuffled to the left and almost immediately the Arsenal attack seemed to improve.
Carson again made a fine stop, this time at the near post from Hleb’s well-struck shot while Adebayor wasted a couple of headers that looked easy chances on first viewing but really weren’t on a second investigation. At the other end Agbonlahor and substitute Marlon Harewood started to flourish in the extra space provided by Arsenal’s push for a goal and Almunia was subsequently forced into a number of good second-half stops.
A point won, not two dropped
Wenger made a couple of late changes with Denilson and Gilberto Silva coming on for Flamini and Senderos as Arsenal turned up the pressure on the away side. And that pressure paid off in the 93rd minute when Clichy’s brilliant curling cross was beautiful cushioned by Adebayor for Bendtner to tuck away from six yards out. The goal ensured that Arsenal came away from the match with the point they needed – but did not necessarily deserve – to stay atop the Premiership table, as the manager was quick to comment on after the match.
“I believe the point we gained today will have a big impact on the Premier League, and staying top helps. You know you go through a spell like that and I believe that the point gained can have vital importance.”
Anyone who saw the game will know that this was not a great performance by Wenger’s side. It was clear the boys were still struggling to get going after a difficult week and things looked incredibly disjointed at times. However, the passion and desire that each player displayed was enough to snatch a point that, as Wenger pointed out, could have a big impact on the Premiership race.
In the short term it may be worth even more. A loss would have seen the club surrender their lead at the top and left the players with a significant psychological burden to overcome in the build-up to what will surely be the biggest game of the season, the Champions League second-leg clash away to AC Milan. Bendtner’s goal means that Wenger and his side will go into their challenge at the San Siro on a high that only a last-minute equaliser or winner can provide.
As for individual performances, there were two standouts for me against Aston Villa. The first was by Manuel Almunia, who made two brilliant saves and two more important ones that kept his side in the game and paved the way for Bendtner’s equaliser. He has well and truly claimed his place as the club’s first-choice goalkeeper this season and deserves to start again against Milan in a few days time.
The second was by William Gallas, who was a rock at the back on a day when his partner was a little off-colour. The captain was under a lot of pressure to bounce back after criticism of his behaviour after the draw with Birmingham and it was great to see him put an assured performance under difficult circumstances. Another one against Milan will go along way to ensuring a safe passage through to the next round.
What do you think?
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