Captain fantastic John McGinn helps secure hosts’ FIFTEENTH consecutive win at home in the league – as Kai Havertz has a last-minute equaliser ruled out for handball
Unai Emery will have you believe Aston Villa aren’t even Champions League contenders. Don’t believe a word of it.
What a team the Spaniard is assembling here. They’ve beaten Manchester City and Tottenham. Add Arsenal to that list. It was after their victory at Spurs that Emery decreed that there were seven teams more capable of securing a top four finish this season.
Not on this evidence. No chance. Villa are the real deal – simple as that, this victory sending them to within one point of the Gunners, who occupy second.
This is a fine Villa team that is displaying all the elements required to succeed.
They blew Arsenal away with an attacking potency the Gunners couldn’t handle in the first half. In the second, with their backs against the wall, they stood tall.
Arsenal couldn’t find an answer. All Mikel Arteta could do was watch from the stands as he served a touchline suspension for accumulating three yellow cards – his most recent for excessively celebrating Declan Rice’s last gasp winner against Luton last Wednesday. Arsenal will come again, of course. They are too good not to. But they’ve lost their place at the Premier League summit to Liverpool – that will be painful for the next 48 hours or so. But this was Emery’s night during one of those titanic struggles that left even the spectators shattered. Thrilling from start to finish. Tense throughout.
But as the dust cleared, it was those donned in claret and blue that were holding their arms aloft. Emery, his face distorted with sheer joy, raised his arms in victory at the full time whistle. This was sweet for him, of course. Emery will largely be remembered as having failed at Arsenal during his short reign at the Emirates.
But his stock couldn’t be higher right now. He’s transformed Villa into a terrifying outfit – he made his point emphatically here last night. The start from his side was stunning. Leon Bailey scorched through Arsenal’s left side leaving Gabriel Magalhaes in his wake in the 7th minute before cutting-back to John McGinn, who steadied himself before firing past David Raya.
The finish was coolness personified; calm and collected from the Villa captain. There was nothing serene about the ensuing celebrations. Frenzied. Yet this was further tangible proof that Villa, under Emery, can hang with the elite. And it was nothing more than they deserved. Their start was bright and inventive. But when you watch Villa, Emery’s work with his players at their Bodymoor Heath HQ smacks you square in the face.
The pace of Ollie Watkins. The power of Douglas Luiz. The invention of Youri Tielemans. But all within a framework and pattern that Emery has honed and shaped to perfection. That said, there were a couple of occasions when their devotion to passing out from the back nearly got them into trouble. Bukayo Saka missed a good opportunity in the 32nd minute before Martin Odegaard grazed the side-netting shortly after Villa had lost possession in defence.
And credit to the Gunners. They weren’t at their fluent best here in the opening 45 minutes but kept going. By the 35th minute the Londoners gained a semblance of control; Diego Carlos had to clear his lines with the ball bouncing towards his own goal after Gabriel Martinelli lofted over Emi Martinez before Odegaard squandered a glorious chance.
Martinez then denied Gabriel Jesus in 42nd minute as Arsenal drove forward in search of a leveller before half-time. Arsenal’s potency was burgeoning with every foray forward; Martinelli should have supplied at better pass after breaking the offside trap in first half stoppage time.
The half-time whistle couldn’t have arrived at a better time for Villa. After their excellent start, they needed to regroup. But Arsenal, ominously, were building a head of steam. Their start to the second period was in similar fashion.
Martinelli, again, was wasteful in a dangerous area before Saka miskicked inside the box. Villa then survived a VAR penalty check. All this inside the first five minutes after the restart. The intensity from Villa’s first half showing had disappeared. They were casual, all of a sudden.
Emery, who replaced Bailey with Moussa Diaby at half-time, tweaked again in the 56th minute bringing on Jacob Ramsey in place of Tielemans in search of greater control.
Yet the wave of Arsenal attacks continued. Odegaard squandered another opportunity in the 58th minute after the ball was put on a plate for him by Kai Havertz before Saka saw his effort, after rounding Martinez, ruled out for offside. Arsenal’s throwing caution to the wind signalled, on occasion, opportunities for Villa to exploit – Diaby’s pace leading to good opportunities for Lucas Digne and Watkins.
Inevitably Declan Rice was the heartbeat of Arsenal’s pursuit of an equaliser; cajoling his colleagues at every opportunity, driving them forward with that lengthy stride. But Villa weren’t for moving though they survived a late scare after after Havertz bundled the ball home at the back post in the 90th minute – but VAR ruled that the Germany international handled in a tangle with Matty Cash, who defended like his life depended on it on it.
Eddie Nketiah missed Arsenal’s last opportunity deep into stoppage time with a poorly executed header. But there was nothing that was poorly executed about this epic Villa performance.