Arsenal 3 (Fabregas 65, 81, Diaby 90) Aston Villa 0
Before yesterday, Villa were the only regular Premiership side we hadn’t beaten at the Grove, and after a first half performance that was decent but lacking in the final thrust, we were in danger of extending that run thanks to some terrific last ditch defending from the visitors. And then, our captain warmed up.
To credit Cesc and Cesc alone would be unfair on the rest of the team, who put in a excellent and patient performance against a very well organised and stubborn Villa outfit, but when we needed that extra something, the spark on the end of a move, the one man who would panic the opposition into losing their shape, we got it from a young man who has gone from a superb midfield talent to a genuine match winner.
And win this match he did. After creating space for teammates by being regularly double teamed by a worried Villa defence, he created his own by spinning away from Richard Dunne, who was too slow to react and took him down. The resulting free kick was a thing of beauty, curling flat into the corner of the net with Friedel nowhere.
The second was a classic counter attack. Milner gave the ball away to the impressive Traore, who picked out Walcott with a searching ball. Cesc made the run, Walcott picked him out and he made no mistake with the finish. Unfortunately, the sprint damaged his hamstring again, and his brief but stunning cameo was over. Even if he is out for a few weeks, you’d be hard pushed to argue against it being worth it.
His sparkling display was not a solo effort – Diaby was superb all day and fully deserved his icing on the cake goal in injury time, as he ghosted past a demoralised defence and curled the ball into the corner. All day long his positioning, work rate and running were excellent, and you feel that if he can just continue this run of games, this might be a coming of age period for the young man. However, you also can’t shake the feeling that his next injury is around the corner.
We were also more dangerous from set pieces than we have been for a long time, and not just directly from free kicks. Song and Diaby got on the end of corners, while Nasri’s whipped crosses from open play also suggested that we can threaten in an area of the game that we are often a little impotent.
Song was superb once again, and he will be sorely missed. It is a shame that the vagaries of the fixture calendar mean he will miss more games than some at the African Nations Cup, as he is such a rock for the midfield. Yesterday Gallas and Vermaelen made a series of charges forward, and it was fascinating to see Song run in the opposite direction to cover, even when we still had the ball. His positioning is superb now – loose passes from the opposition always seem to find him.
So another fantastic couple of days – Chelsea’s slip means that a win at home to Bolton in our game in hand would leave us a single point from the top, a remarkable recovery from the position we found ourselves in after being humbled at the Emirates a few weeks ago. It says a lot about the mental strength of this unit.
I will finish by giving enormous credit to a man who doesn’t get a lot – the referee. Phil Dowd had a superb game, letting the game flow, and showing common sense throughout. Some would have cautioned Song for a foul in the first half – he recognised that it was worthy only of a warning and kept his cards in his pocket. In the second half, he repeated the trick after Petrov’s similar offence. He spotted dives from Young and Song and booked both, and left neither manager with anything to complain about.
It is a rare that an official does so well, and he deserves a nod when he does. Nice work.
But despite impressive performances from many, it really was all about one man. Our 22 year old captain. What a player he is.