Arsenal 3-0 Aston Villa

The joy of Cesc

December 27, 2009
By Kevin Palmer
(Archive)

Truly special players confirm their brilliance when it matters most and in a game that had the potential to define his side's season, Arsenal skipper Cesc Fàbregas stepped up to the plate in the grand manner.

Cesc Fabregas: Hungry for success
GettyImagesCesc Fabregas: Hungry for success

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With 64 minutes gone of this gripping encounter between two sides with their eyes on an unlikely title challenge in 2010, the returning Gunners hero found himself perched over a free-kick that required the touch of a master to turn it into something significant.

Clearly Fàbregas was less than fully fit as he started this game on the bench, nursing the hamstring injury that has disrupted his contribution in the last month, and yet he still had enough in his locker to propel Arsenal back into a title race they appeared to be knocked out of after Chelsea's 3-0 triumph here a month ago.

Against opponents that showed little fear and proved themselves to be worthy of their tag as dark horses for glory this season, it needed a cameo performance from Fàbregas to change the course of a game, even though his contribution lasted less than a half an hour.

Not only did the little Spanish wizard produce the vital opening goal with a delicious free-kick that gave sprawling Villa keeper Brad Friedel little chance, but he followed it up with a second goal that was equally brilliant in its own way. Showing energy and desire to get to a pass from the lighting quick Theo Walcott, Fàbregas' lofted finish was excellently executed.

It was to be his final contribution to the game as Fàbregas aggravated his hamstring injury, yet the one truly world class player on show had done his damage, much to the delight of the coach who has done so much to hone him into the talent that can change the course of a vital match in such dramatic fashion.

"It is a curious fact that Cesc is feeling down in the dressing room even after his two great goals," said Wenger. "He is concerned about the injury and at this moment, we are not sure how badly he has aggravated his hamstring injury. He may be out for a few days or maybe three weeks. The second of those two would be a massive blow to us because we cannot afford to lose midfielders at this moment.

"Was it a gamble worth taking bringing him on? We will never know. Maybe we could have won the game without Cesc, but this was a vital match for us and I felt we had to take a gamble on him and he clearly helped us to get the three points."

This was the fixture that exposed the flaws that would eventually end Arsenal's hopes of silverware last season, with Villa's comprehensive 2-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium confirming that the Wenger vintage of 2008-09 lacked the physical power and maturity to back up their majestic passing football.

Now, with Chelsea and Manchester United seemingly determined to avoid taking the initiative in the most open Premier League title race in years, two of the chief pretenders to the crown had their chance to confirm they can be more than nearly men in the second half of the season.

Cesc Fabregas is replaced by Aaron Ramsey
EmpicsCesc Fabregas is replaced by Aaron Ramsey after scoring two against Villa

And while the first half lacked the goals required to turn this game into a classic, the tantalising sparring between the two combatants still made fascinating viewing until Fàbregas was released from the bench.

We didn't have to wait long for the returning hero to move his Arsenal legend onto a new level, with his brilliant goals winning a game that could easily have ended scoreless without his intervention. Villa had been floored and even though they had matched Arsenal for the majority of this game, Martin O'Neill's men lacked the single genius who tipped the balance and for that reason, their status as title contenders may have to be amended respectfully to top-four contenders.

"I don't see why our top-four credentials should be doubted after this one game," argued the ever articulate O'Neill. "I didn't get carried away when we beat Chelsea and won at Old Trafford, so I will not get too ahead of myself now either. We have been beaten by a fine Arsenal side, who had a substitute that had a massive impact on this game.

"We will know by the end of January whether we are in the mix to sustain a challenge this season and I am not overly concerned by the fact we have lost here today. I think the final scoreline of 3-0 was more than a little harsh on us."

Abou Diaby added a gloss to Arsenal's triumph with a third goal, yet this game was all about one man whose class and craft could just be emerging as the key to the most unpredictable Premier League title race of them all.

"I didn't anticipate that our opponents would drop as many points as they have done in the last month," admits Wenger. "Chelsea have come back to us and we have shown great belief to battle on. This team has not won anything yet and until they do, we will not know for sure that they have the mentality to do it. What they have done is got themselves back in the race."

There have been many who have wavered in their support for Wenger in the past couple of years, but his name was being cheered with gusto as the final whistle of this game signalled what should be the launchpad for something more than a near miss in the New Year.

Thanks to Chelsea's inconsistencies and Manchester United's horrible injury crisis, Wenger has been handed the chance to defy his doubters and prove that the team he has defended in the face of stern criticism for the last three years can, in fact, be winners.

The ambition he shows in next month's transfer window will make or break his hopes. If he makes two successful signings, 2010 may just be Arsenal's year after all.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cesc Fàbregas
He didn't need long to make his mark on this game and Arsenal can only hope that his latest injury is not of the long-term variety.

DOWD CREDIT: Referee Phil Dowd may not have won favour with his bosses by refusing to book players early on, but his determination to keep this game flowing allowed the spectacle to live up to the pre-match billing.

VILLA VERDICT: O'Neill's men were worthy challengers to Arsenal for long periods and they will be firmly in the mix for a Champions League place this season. How they react to this setback will be crucial to their hopes.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Title contenders once again? The jury has to remain out until Wenger shows his hand in the transfer market, but Arsenal have given themselves a chance to challenge faltering Chelsea and Manchester United in 2010.