Arsenal slip while Aston Villa let rip with late goals from Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins
Source: Irishtimes

Sun Apr 14 2024 - 19:28

Premier League: Arsenal 0 Aston Villa 2 If this was the afternoon when Arsenal let it slip then Mikel Arteta will know they only have themselves to blame. Handed the perfect opportunity to lay down their title credentials after Liverpool had been surprisingly beaten by Crystal Palace, instead it was Aston Villa who celebrated wildly at the final whistle after late goals from substitute Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins delivered a hammer blow to Arsenal's chances of ending a 20-year wait to be crowned champions.

It was a victory that will have tasted particularly sweet for Unai Emery, who was sacked by Arsenal in November 2019 after just 18 months in charge but is now a step closer to guiding Villa to Champions League qualification next season following this famous victory. Things could have been even worse for the home supporters - most of whom stayed until the bitter end in hope rather than expectation of a comeback - had Watkins and Youri Tielemans not seen their efforts strike the woodwork either side of half-time.

But just as Arsenal's young side showed their fallibility this time last season to allow Manchester City to overhaul them, they will fear that those failings have returned at precisely the wrong moment after disastrous defending gifted Bailey the opening goal six minutes from time before Watkins rounded things off with his 19th of the season.

Arteta had insisted that his side could "just focus on what we can do" but the surprise defeat for Jurgen Klopp's side at Anfield had certainly given Arsenal's supporters a stride in their step as they made their way to the ground. Tottenham's thrashing at Newcastle on Saturday had given Emery's side even more incentive to get a result against his former employers and they appeared to be a considerably more dangerous proposition than the team thrashed 4-1 by City 11 days ago, with Watkins leading the attack this time.

Yet perhaps it was the absence of Villa's key midfielder Douglas Luiz through suspension that encouraged Arteta to deploy Kai Havertz in central midfield and shift Gabriel Jesus back into the central striker's role as one of three changes from the side that drew the first leg against Bayern Munich on Tuesday.

Had Havertz made the most of two decent chances that fell his way inside the opening quarter of an hour then the gamble would have paid off handsomely. But he could not quite reach a cross from Bukayo Saka before firing straight at Emiliano Martinez after a brilliant pass from Leandro Trossard. Jesus was next to waste a chance when he headed wide after Saka had picked him out at the far post before the England winger fired into the side-netting from a tight angle thanks to Martin Odegaard's precise through-ball.

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Oleksandr Zinchenko had plenty to thank Trossard for when the Belgian forward made a crucial intervention on the edge of Arsenal's box to deny Watkins following a quick break, with the left-back nowhere to be seen. Zinchenko then tried a speculative effort from just inside Villa's half after intercepting Martinez's weak goal-kick but it never really looked like beating the Argentina goalkeeper. It seemed inevitable that Arsenal would find a breakthrough but Diego Carlos was able to outmuscle Havertz after another lung-busting run through the middle of Villa's defence.

Arsenal were then lucky to escape after a wayward pass from Gabriel Magalhaes struck the unsuspecting Zinchenko in the back but the unlucky Watkins saw his effort cannon back off the post and away to safety. Less than 30 seconds later Martinez incredibly managed to claw away Trossard's shot on the goal line after he was set up by Jesus in a breathless end to the first half that saw the hosts muster 14 shots but not find the breakthrough they desperately yearned for.

To Villa's credit, they had managed to frustrate Arsenal for large periods by keeping the ball and that pattern continued in the second half. Jesus went to ground claiming an unlikely penalty after tangling with Carlos when he could have attempted a shot instead and the referee David Coote waved away his appeals.

Arteta cut a frustrated figure on the touchline as his side struggled to recapture their rhythm after the break and the anxiety of the home supporters began to rise. Perhaps sensing that it just might be their day, Villa's travelling fans found their voices when their side won a corner just after the hour mark and Tielemans saw his brilliant effort smack off the crossbar and on to the post after dispossessing Zinchenko on the edge of his area.

Martinez was then on hand to deny Jesus's curling shot after a rapid Arsenal break downfield as Arteta turned to Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe off the bench. But as time ticked on, if anything it seemed more likely that Villa would find the crucial goal - and so it proved as Bailey tapped home at the far post after William Saliba allowed a cross from Lucas Digne to reach him before Watkins put the final nail in Arsenal's coffin with a dinked finish into the top corner.

- Guardian