Attendance: 34 607
With the rain lashing down at Villa Park, the team in the bottom three and the 5-0 defeat to Manchester City not long in the memory, Villa fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst -Arsenal were in town. The slick passing Londoners would be another test for Lambert’s young Lions, only this time he would have to watch it play out from the stands, having received a one game touch line ban. Once again Villa’s performance demonstrated what a roller-coaster season they are having.
The first half was largely uneventful, Arsenal and Villa swapping possession and play in a niggling affair, marred by the conditions. Arsenal created few chances, the best falling to Koscielny, who having progressed up the pitch amid a good counter-attacking move, then found himself alone in the box though judging by his swivelled, pitched up finish, Arsene Wenger would be forgiven for wishing that Giroud had met the ball himself, rather than supply the low cross for his hapless team mate.
It was Villa though that found the net. Andreas Weimann, a player who continues to impress in claret and blue, finished off Clark’s low cross only to have his effort correctly ruled offside. Minutes later, the official’s ruled in Arsenal’s favour again when Agbonlahor steamed into the penalty box only to find himself on the end of a Gunner tackle. The home crowd demanded a penalty though referee Lee Mason waved all appeals away. Replays would later show it to be a beautifully timed interception.
Villa might also have felt aggrieved when Szczesny raced off his line to meet the oncoming Agbonlahor, the Arsenal Keeper diving on the ball then sliding out of the box with it. Referee Mason awarded Villa a free kick for handball but refused calls for cards, seeing the slippery and wet conditions as grounds for mitigation, much to the ire of the Villa faithful who were by now feeling hard done by.
Of course, central to Villa’s first half threat was the colossal Benteke. The giant Belgian bullied, harried and collected the ball all evening long, passing and moving off the ball with intelligence and craft. Arsenal seemed to have no answer though some calls will still ring out for Bent. Villa did lack some cutting edge in the final third; that killer ball or neat finish. Undoubtedly, all this will continue to be a headache for Paul Lambert, who seems committed to Villa 4-4-3 with Benteke Agbonlahor and Weimann up front, the latter two swarming around Benteke with menace.
The second half was much brighter for Villa. The midfield of Bannan and Westwood were instrumental all afternoon, Bannan was particularly impressive in his passing and command of the play. Ashley Westwood should get the plaudits as well. At the price Villa have paid he is starting to look like a gem, a complete justification of Lambert’s belief in promoting players from the lower leagues.
The Villa midfield pressed and pressured their Arsenal counterparts into misfiring passes and poor decision making all afternoon long. Arsene Wenger will no doubt cite his injury list and a recent trip to Montpelier as reasons for his side’s struggles in the rain. Indeed, at times Arsenal looked jaded and lacking in penetration though, with valuable points at stake Paul Lambert simply will not care how his team climb up the table just as long as they do.
Villa fans may have been worried when a calf-injury forced international class defender, Ron ‘Concrete’ Vlaar from the field. Versatile American Lichaj slotted into left back with the excellent Lowton, another league one buy, moving to centre back. Once again this young Villa back four showed character and energy, marshalling themselves well against a run of Arsenal corners and free kicks. Enda Stevens, who was virtually written of as a third choice left back, doomed to the reserves, is suddenly looking remarkably solid and a first choice starter.
The defensive lapses that have recently plagued Villa were today, absent, perhaps demonstrating that the team is moving forward. Other than a Santi Cazorla strike, the end result of a sweet Arsenal move and two Aaron Ramsey efforts Arsenal offered little in terms of out-and-out opportunities. Instead, they had to contend with a purposeful and well drilled Villa defence who were giving little away.
It was substitute Holman though who nearly settled it for Villa. Having weaved his way through the centre he unleashed a bending drive from twenty yards out. It left Szczesny having to make an arcing finger tip save. Both the shot and the save were worthy of applause.
All in all, a huge point for Villa and a good, solid performance in bad conditions. Lambert’s Lions must now go forward with momentum and get the three points against Reading. With games against QPR and Stoke waiting in the wings, this could prove to be a big couple of weeks for their season.
Man of the match: Bannan
Room for improvement: El Ahmadi