Villa beat Arsenal at home. So what’s new says Dave Woodhall.
There’s been a fair bit of looking back to Christmas 1989-90 this week. Back then, in the space of four days Villa played at home to Arsenal and a side from Manchester. One of them were champions, both were beaten. The first win was a magnificent performance against opponents whose manager looked halfway out of the door, the second was more hard-fought but nevertheless convincing. Together they showed that Villa were unlikely title contenders, possibly the most unlikely of all time.
Which brings us to the events of the past week. It isn’t Christmas yet but it’s close enough to draw the comparisons. Villa’s win against Manchester City on Wednesday finally made the rest of the country know what we worked out weeks ago. Then came Arsenal, and surely the team would struggle to recover from the exertions of what they went through three days earlier. Unai Emery couldn’t have thought there was much of a problem because the team was unchanged; time was when that alone would have brought some criticism but the manager can do no wrong, no arguments.
And it didn’t take long for him to be proved right. Seven minutes gone and a few trademark quick passes saw Leon Bailey with the ball. He, naturally, took out three defenders in as many strides and laid the ball off to John McGinn, who turned and put Villa a goal up.
That was the match won, because when the Villa are in the lead that’s how the game ends but first we had to go through the motions of another 83 minutes plus stoppage time. Emiliano Martinez made a couple of good saves, Arsenal had a penalty claim turned down, which will probably lead to a complaint to some international court that deals in such horrendous miscarriages of justice.
Leon Bailey went off at half-time with what Emery said was exhaustion and it’s easy to see why – there’s no more improved player at Villa Park this season and few in the league. Moussa Diaby came on for him and there was a steady stream of other arrivals throughout the second half as tired legs were replaced and gameplans tweaked to match Arsenal’s tactics. The Villa offside trap was its usual precise self and when the visitors occasionally found a way through it, Martinez was there to prevent any further problems. Arsenal did get the ball into the net although there was a clear handball, even if it wasn’t clear enough for the inevitable outpourings from players, manager and no doubt the entire massed ranks of Arsenal TV fan channels.
Eventually the referee decided to let Arsenal accept their inevitable defeat. They were never going to score no matter how long they played and how much they complained – and I seem to remember their entire team surrounding the ref after the match in 1989 as well. Two games, six points, an all-time record and the most significant week for many years. I’ve been saying all along that nobody really expects Villa to challenge for the title but the question now is why not? We’ve shown we can beat anybody and not just when they’re having an off-day. Graham Taylor’s side eventually ran out of steam and finished runners-up, which was an almighty achievement for them and would be just as impressive this season. But just for a moment, let’s start to think about going one better.