Champions League close for Arsenal after crucial 1-0 win at Aston Villa as Saka creates havoc
Match Report from Villa Park, Birmingham
Aston Villa 0-1 Arsenal
Arsenal strengthened their case for Champions League qualification with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Aston Villa thanks to a 30th-minute goal by Bukayo Saka.
The expansive, fleet-footed sand free-flowing Gunners were in complete domination from the off and could have extended their lead in both halves but for a lack of clinical edge
John McGinn, Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings all came close to levelling things up for Villa after the hour-mark but Arsenal stood firm to take all three points to North London.
This was the perfect reaction to their 2-0 midweek defeat at home to Liverpool and Mike Arteta’s high-flying side extended their cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United to four points with a game in hand and an on-paper easier run of games.
Arteta has silenced numerous detractors and naysayers who were keen to see his head roll but it’s too easy to jump on the bandwagon now, with a place in Europe’s premier competition in Arsenal’s hands.
And to give a measure of how well he has done this season, the young Spaniard has had to make do without a prolific goalscorer in the wake of Pierre-]Emerick Aubameyang’s shock January exit.
As he admitted himself yesterday his side need to score between 90 and a century of goals if they want to finish top of the Premier League one day.
Today's encounter resembled a chess-match at first as Arsenal had to bide their time to open up the opposition despite venturing forward and asking the only questions of the first half in an attack versus defence game.
Arsenal meant business in the opening minutes and had they had someone like Erling Haaland or Dusan Vlahovic they would have transformed possession into goals.
After three minutes the visitors could have broken the deadlock when Saka cut the ball back for Emile Smith Rowe who then laid it off for Martin Odegaard but the Norwegian scuffed his shot wide.
Six minutes later Thomas Partey sent a low drive right into the arms of former Gunner Emiliano Martinez from outside the box before the latter came to his side’s rescue again with a sublime palm-away after Ezri Konsa inadvertently almost deflected Saka’s cross into his own net.
It took Villa 21 minutes to get their first sight of goal, but Ben White’s sliding intervention prevented the ball from reaching Watkins after a long ball in.
And after pushing Villa back, Arsenal’s youthful exuberance found a way through.
Euro 2020 runner-up Saka sent the travelling supporters into a delirium when he found the bottom corner with a classic curled finish.
Cedric Soares initiated the attack with a brilliant outswinging cross into the box which the Villa rearguard failed to deal with before Jacob Ramsey made a hash of clearing his lines, giving the ball away to Saka just outside the box to fire home as Martinez saw it too late.
Arsenal camping in Villa’s own half made life very hard for Gerrard’s disinterested men. They struggled to play out from the back and through the lines and in the first half they never really threatened the visitors.
After the restart, Arsenal continued to take the game to the home side but Smith Rowe fired too close to Martinez before Odegaard had a goal-bound attempt blocked by Konsa after Lacazette won possession back in midfield.
But Villa began to grow into the game with each passing minute and Gabriel did well to clear the danger at the far post after a menacing ball in from the left before John McGinn’s curling effort fizzed just inches wide of the far post on the hour-mark.
Saka then came within a whisker of rounding off an outstanding afternoon with a second strike. After a slick team move he broke forward but saw his shot flash wide.
Villa then had two more chances to nick one point from the game but Watkins hit the post after a deflection off Kieran Tierney before substitute Ings headed over the crossbar as the Gunners made it six wins from their last eight games.
The once-maligned Arteta has transformed Arsenal from also-rans to a top-four side but most importantly they are now a team the fans are proud to watch again following some dark years.