By Randy Osae
It had been the imperious, priceless boon of boxing day, until Zat Knight’s shattering strike occurred after one thrilling 91 minutes.
They collected a fair a point, but when it did no good by keeping Arsenal at the top four’s bay and 10 points adrift – if the title is still fantasized – then this draw was allied to a demoralizing defeat.
Lady luck and Santa Claus had shown up as a kind couple tonight. But they gave with dazzling generosity and took back in heart-breaking dismay.
Wenger’s line-up was expected to have two formal changes in the absence of Fabregas and Adebayor. Eboue and Diaby were their replacements but an unheard calf problem for Clichy meant Silvestre’s drafting while another unforeseen Djourou injury in the warm-up brought Kolo Toure back into the side since the home meeting with Wigan.
Aston Villa’s relentless pressure kept Arsenal at strain from kick-off. Indeed, Wenger’s men could be likened to a rock-bottom side chasing the shadows of a title contender during the first-half.
The hosts would have virtually wrapped up matters by the end of the opening 45 minutes, had they not being negated by Almunia’s best partner – the woodwork.
After just five minutes, Steve Sidwell nearly punished his former club with a header that struck the crossbar. Following countless Villa openings, Milner was found free deep in the box to tap home, but his effort remarkably hit the nearby post and into Almunia’s grasping arms. Moments after, from a similar angle, Davies hooked a shot over Arsenal’s stopper and onto the goal’s frame, again.
If Arsenal had ridden rich fortune by remaining level at this point, then only Father Christmas had an answer to how they would lead on 40 minutes. Denilson stole possession from Reo-Coker and raced into Villa’s territory to finish between the legs of Friedel.
That goal was greeted with upset at the ground, even by Arsenal’s standards.
Soon after, Agbonlahor headed over Almunia after an opening by the urgent hosts, but Sagna rushed onto the goal-bound ball to provide an astonishing acrobatic clearance off the line.
The first-half had been simply but a rare lucky, lucky, Arsenal.
The festive grace continued. Three minutes into the second-half, a combined move between Eboue and Diaby started on the right end of the half-way line and finished with the latter providing a splendid strike to place Villa behind command…where they should have dented Arsenal to long ago.
Diaby’s finish was Vieira-esque for a midfielder’s goal and so was his celebration – which earned the Frenchman a booking after slapping the corner flag in cheeky joy and embracing the visiting fans.
It was becoming an absurd Arsenal turn-around against the run of play for Arsenal. Van Persie stroke the post from point blank range, while Eboue’s likely effort was blocked – all in no time.
Those misses could only come back to haunt Arsenal even with a two-goal cushion.
Gallas, who had been responsible for silencing Agbonlahor all day finally buckled to his pace as he needlessly slid onto the English youngster to hand Villa a penalty. The former skipper did not argue referee Lee Mason’s decision as it had looked blatant on the event, but replays showed it could have went otherwise.
Gareth Barry did not miss from the spot and game on it was.
Arsene Wenger knew his side were letting this slip as Clichy replaced left-winger Samir Nasri for more defensive backbone. The Gunners looked to have held off Villa’s climb but Martin O’neill’s men would still have the last laugh.
A minute after the announcement of four minutes of added time with Wenger anxious as ever, Villa posed one last question of Arsenal. Stiliyan Petrov sent in a random cross into Arsenal’s area, which eventually fell to Zat Knight, and even the centre-back could deliver a sumptuous left footed drive to derail Arsenal’s ambitions and redeem theirs.