Football

Santi Cazorla brace helps Arsenal edge past Aston Villa

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Santi Cazorla scored four minutes from time to help Arsenal edge past a spirited Aston Villa side at the Emirates Stadium on a bitterly cold February afternoon.

After a tough week for the Gunners, the three points were all that mattered and a 2-1 victory moves them to within a point of a Champions League qualification place.

A 5th minute Cazorla strike had opened the scoring, but Villa were always dangerous on the counter, and the tireless Andreas Weimann grabbed a deserved equaliser on 68 minutes - charging from inside his own half before arrowing a shot past Wojciech Szczesny.

Arsenal had improved in the second half after a nervy opening 45 minutes, and Cazorla's second of the game four minutes from the end proved to be the match-winner.

It was cruel on Villa, who will feel they deserved something from the game, but for Arsenal it was a hugely important return to winning ways.

Back to back home defeats to Blackburn and Bayern Munich seemed to have thrown the Gunners back into something approaching a crisis.

Since their Capital One Cup defeat to Bradford City they'd steadily ticked along, picking up enough points to keep the boo-boys at arms length, and the criticisms muted.

But, following their humbling at the hands of the Bundesliga leaders on Wednesday night, when the gap between the teams was worryingly stark, the visit of a relegation threatened Aston Villa gave the Gunners a chance to move to within one point of fourth placed Tottenham.

Arsene Wenger's demeanour has soured over the last seven days, but the battle for that other elusive "trophy" - fourth place and Champions League qualification - has not been affected by their recent troubles in the Cups.

And they started brightly. An early chance for Jack Wilshere, after the England man had capitalised on a poor backpass from Joe Bennett, was smothered by Brad Guzan, and Arsenal quickly monopolised possession.

'Silent' Stan Kroenke, the rarely seen Gunners chairman was in attendance, perhaps to discuss that reported £70m summer transfer budget.

And he didn't have to wait long to see an Arsenal goal - Cazorla given too much space in the box to fire into the bottom corner after just five minutes. The Spaniard's strike was his 10th of the campaign - that meant he became the first Arsenal player to net 10 league goals in his first season since Thierry Henry in 1999-2000.

At that point, it looked like Arsenal would run riot. Paul Lambert scowled, prowling around his spacious technical area - his team were sitting deep and getting picked off.

But, after 15 minutes of Arsenal probing and possession, the West Midlands side settled. And for much of the first half Villa were the more incisive attacking team.

They showed on their trip to Anfield that they can be a dangerous opponent on the road, and they cut open Arsenal's defence with worrying ease on more than one occasion in the first 45 minutes.

Gabriel Agbonlahor had a deflected shot palmed away by Wojciech Szczesny, while good work from Weimann teed up Charles N'Zogbia - but the Frenchman's shot was well parried by the Poland international.

Arsenal continued to labour in possession - Abou Diaby more guilty than most of carelessness - but Villa's fragility meant Wenger's side still carved out chances. Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere both squandered difficult opportunities but Lambert would not have been too concerned heading into the break.

Arsenal have the best second half record in the Premier League - compared to just the 10th best in the first, but the second 45 minutes quickly settled into a familiar pattern.

Arsenal controlled the ball, but the best openings continued to fall to Villa - Ciaran Clark going close from a corner, while a fast-break saw Agbonhalor nod over a Weimann cross when well placed.

And it was to be a rapid counter that got Villa back in the game. Andreas Weimann - the hardest working player on the pitch - ran fully 40 yards before smashing low past Szczesny into the bottom corner. The Austrian has been one of Villa's best players this season, and this strike was his 10th of an impressive debut campaign.

Szczesny got a hand to it though, and will feel he should have done better.

Arsenal huffed and puffed, but too often their attacks stalled on the edge of the Villa box. Giroud had a header from point blank range tipped over by Guzan, while twice crosses flashed across the Villa box with no Arsenal touch.

But, it was third time lucky for the Gunners as Cazorla bagged his second of the game as time ticked away.

A great pass from Wilshere set Monreal down to the by-line, the Spaniard pulled the ball back to the penalty spot, where his international colleague was on hand to slot the ball past Guzan low into the corner.

It's been said before that Wilshere is one of the few English players with a Spanish-style technique, and his link-up with Arsenal's two Spain internationals was a rare moment of quality. This was a goal worthy of the reigning European and World Champions.

It was tough on Villa, who probably deserved at least a point, but it delivered a crucially important win for Arsenal.

They're now breathing down the necks of north London rivals Spurs, who face a tricky trip to Upton Park to face West Ham on Monday night. 

Arsenal

Szczesny, Jenkinson (Podolski), Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Monreal, Wilshere, Arteta, Walcott, Diaby (Ramsey), Giroud, Cazorla

Aston Villa

Guzan, Lowton, Baker, Clark, Bennett, N'Zogbia, Westwood, Delph, Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor

Man of the match: Santi Cazorla

Topics:
Arsenal
Football
Premier League
Aston Villa

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