Arsenal make the seven all the more superior


Olivier Giroud slots in the decisive second goal for Arsenal at Villa Park.

Goals from Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud fired Arsenal back to the top of the Premier League and consigned Aston Villa to their seventh home defeat of the season.

17 seconds was the precise time that separated the two Arsenal goals, as they responded in style to the victories recorded by each member of the ‘Superior Seven’.

Christian Benteke gave the home side hope with his first goal in 11 matches with a quarter of an hour remaining but it would prove to be little more than a consolation.

The Gunners were soon into their rhythm, despite Karim El Ahmadi ‘s best efforts to disrupt the visitors’ fluid passing game with a robust challenge on Jack Wilshere, which earned the Moroccan international an early caution.

Early hesitation in the Aston Villa defence presented Olivier Giroud, who was returning to the Arsenal side from both illness and injury, with an opportunity to give the visitors the initiative, but his glancing header didn’t match the precision of Bacary Sagna’s pin-point centre.

The same pair worked well in tandem moments later, only for the French full-back to provide a cross that narrowly eluded his compatriot at the near post.

Paul Lambert’s side, who hadn’t recorded a win at Villa Park against the Gunners since a 3-2 comeback success in December 1998, were forced to reshuffle their pack when Serge Gnabry’s strike hit Nathan Baker flush in the face.

The injury – which temporarily left the young defender concussed – appeared to galvanize Villa, as they responded better to the lengthy stoppage. First El Ahmadi and then Gabby Agbonlahor slipped between Mertesacker and Koscielny after swift and direct counter-attacks, but both lacked the necessary composure with Szczesny’s goal in sight.

Much has changed since the Villa Park outfit’s opening day victory at the Emirates, and much of the wave of optimism that swept North London since that balmy August afternoon was spurred by the deadline-day arrival of Mesut Özil. Having been quiet in the early skirmishes, it was his defence-splitting pass that would spark a blitz by Arsene Wenger’s side.

Nacho Monreal – the Spanish full-back preferred to Kieran Gibbs – was found inside Matthew Lowton by the German international, and his cut-back was collected and swept low into the net by the on-rushing Jack Wilshere.

If the first was classy, the second was clinical, and the sucker-punch that left the home side reeling. Fabian Delph was caught in possession by the buoyant Wilshere, and his lofted ball into the path of Giroud was expertly controlled and then drilled ruthlessly passed the hapless Brad Guzan.

Paul Lambert found himself in the familiar position of needing to inject pace and intent into a side that was staring at another home defeat. There had been little in the opening period to suggest the disenchanted home fans were about to be lifted in the manner that Dion Dublin brought them to their feet over 15 years ago.

Delph and then Ashley Westwood tested Szczesny from distance, but it was not until the introduction of Andreas Weimann with just short of twenty minutes remaining that Villa began to ask questions of Arsenal’s resolve and their impressive record of having won seven and drawn seven of the past 14 encounters between the sides at Villa Park.

Arsenal were not to be spared a nervy final quarter of an hour, however.

Having seen his turn and shot flash harmlessly wide of Szczesny’s post, Christian Benteke reduced the arrears.

The Belgium striker latched onto Lowton’s cross to stoop and head in at the far past to provide the home side with a lifeline in a match that had been slipping away from them.

Suddenly, there was an understandable air of concern about Arsenal’s play that matched the anxious touchline trudging of their manager, and it was Benteke that was presented with the final chance to level matters when he met another Lowton cross, only to see his header comfortably gathered by Szczesny.

With the season having turned a corner following the clutch of festive fixtures, the title protagonists have signalled their intentions with an impeccable start to the new year.

The poor get poorer, and the rich get richer.

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