Dublin double does it
Maybe Aston Villa are something more than pre-Christmas pretenders. Certainly they are championship material if powers of recovery are anything to go by.
Yesterday a stunning second-half revival restored John Gregory's team to the top of the Premiership after a Saturday night's absence. Arsenal's period of travail appeared over when Dennis Bergkamp gave them a 2-0 lead on the stroke of half-time with his second goal of the game, but after Julian Joachim had restored Villa's interest in the contest Dion Dublin scored twice to bring them a memorable victory in a thoroughly entertaining match.
So the pressure is back on Manchester United, who now have to beat Chelsea at Old Trafford on Wednesday night to push Villa back into second place. But even if Villa lose the leadership again they know that they have ended more than a few doubts about their ability to stay the pace.
Gregory said: "I believe after the week we have had against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal that there are four teams who have the potential to be champions - including us."
Yesterday's victory over the champions and Double winners, and especially the manner in which it was achieved, will have done much to restore confidence among the Villa supporters after only two points had been taken from four games. Villa simply refused to admit that a revived Arsenal side were their superiors; it was a triumph of stubbornness as much as anything.
Gregory's tactical switches in the second half contributed in no small part to the way his team turned the match around. His introduction of Stan Collymore, who had begun the afternoon on the bench, to augment Dublin and Joachim up front steadily eroded the efficiency of an Arsenal defence which, while lacking the injured Tony Adams, had hitherto resisted Villa's untidy attacks with little difficulty.
For Arsene Wenger the most disappointing aspect of this defeat will be the way his team's organisation at the back crumbled away after Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka had dominated much of the first half. Arsenal performed some extraordinary tactical contortions in their efforts to regain the initiative, one of which involved Steve Bould spending a period on the left wing.
Having also gone four Premiership matches without a win, Arsenal were as keen as Villa to go for three points yesterday and the commitment of both sides to attack ensured a rewarding spectacle from the outset. Yet Villa struggled to get into the game.
The opening goal, after 14 minutes, stemmed from Fredrik Ljungberg, a strong influence in the first half, beating Alan Wright in the air. As the ball bobbed on, Anelka's head flicked it past Gareth Southgate with Bergkamp surging through to gain possession. The bounce was awkward, the ball just would not come down, but Bergkamp's outstanding technique enabled him to beat Michael Oakes with a horizontal volley.
Villa's immediate response was ragged, with little of consequence reaching Dublin and Joachim's tendency to snatch at everything wasting what decent service there was. In the closing seconds of the half Bergkamp and Anelka sliced through Villa's cover with a double exchange of passes which ended with the Frenchman dragging the ball back from the by-line for the Dutchman to turn it past Oakes once more.
First Collymore's run stretched Arsenal at the back and Lee Hendrie's short, square pass set up Joachim for a goal taken sharply with the outside of a foot.
Then Joachim's centre from the right saw a shot from Dublin blocked, Alan Thompson prod the rebound forward and Dublin move clear of the defence to beat David Seaman. In vain Arsenal claimed, with some justification, that Dublin was offside.
Either way Villa now sensed they could win a match which only 20 minutes earlier had seemed beyond them. Sure enough, in the 83rd minute Thompson's corner from the right cleared the leaping Martin Keown and Dublin had time and space to control the ball before driving it into the roof of the net.
Aston Villa: Oakes, Wright, Southgate, Ehiogu, Watson, Taylor, Thompson, Joachim (Grayson 86), Dublin, Barry (Collymore 54), Hendrie. Subs Not Used: Charles, Vassell, Ghent. Booked: Thompson, Wright, Southgate. Goals: Joachim 62, Dublin 65, 83.
Arsenal: Seaman, Dixon, Vieira, Bould, Vivas, Ljungberg (Grimandi 68), Anelka, Bergkamp, Overmars, Keown, Parlour (Boa Morte 89). Subs Not Used: Wreh, Upson, Manninger. Booked: Bergkamp, Ljungberg, Dixon. Goals: Bergkamp 14, 45. Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).
See also pages 4, 5 and 6