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Mar 1, 2008

Gunners feeling the pressure

If there is a flaw in Arsene Wenger's make-up, it comes with his reaction to a major setback.

Few doubt that the brilliant Arsenal manager is one of the finest coaches in the world game, with his reputation as the master moulder of young talent secure whether his side end up collecting any silverware this season or not, yet when it comes to finding a way of rallying his troops when they have received a blow to the egos he has inflated, Wenger may have something of a blind spot.

You see, Monsieur Wenger has become one of the game's top winners purely on the basis that he is long established as one of its worst losers and his attitude of angst and frustration following a rare setback can rub off on his players in a manner that damages them severely.

Take the game at Old Trafford back in 2004 that saw his side's record-breaking 49-game unbeaten run come to an end. Instead of dusting himself down and remaining focused on the job in hand, he lost his cool and his players then try to react with anger an aggression rather than the silky football that makes them a great side.

'We cannot play when we are full of hate,' Wenger muttered to the media on Friday, yet after his afternoon from hell at Birmingham last Saturday, you always suspected this was going to be the most severe test of Arsenal's status as major contenders for the Premier League title.

The horror of Eduardo's tackle was compounded by the pathetic antics of captain William Gallas as he threw an almighty and tearful tantrum as the final whistle blew at St Andrews, leaving the dark horses for the title all season in a position where they needed to reaffirm their intent against a gritty Aston Villa side.

The 'let's do it for Eduardo' cry was noble, but the reality is Arsenal have a history of failing to bounce back when they feel as if the world is against them and thus was the case against a Villa side who were in no mood to show any sympathy.

It was with an air of determination that Arsenal set-out on their first game since the St Andrews disaster and while they could not be faulted for the urgency displayed in the opening exchanges, the raw pace of Theo Walcott was not enough to give them the lead they craved.

While it was something of a surprise to see Villa take a 27th minute lead, the warning signs had been there as the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor had been concerning the Arsenal backline and as he burst down the left flank and squared to John Carew in the box, Philippe Senderos could only divert his clearance into the back of his own net.

If there were any fragile minds in the Arsenal camp, conceding the first goal of the game was likely to expose them and on a day when Wenger needed the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas to lift spirits, the two stars of their season to date were missing in action.

While Scott Carson made a few decent saves to maintain Villa's advantage, there was just as much work for Manuel Almunia down the other end, with the impressive Agbonlahor always a menace on the break and Marlon Harewood adding to the Villa threat when he was released from the bench late on.

Walcott's contribution would also have been a worry for Wenger as after his two goal showing at Birmingham last weekend, the English boy wonder fluffed his lines as he appeared to be little more than a one-trick pony in this game. If your trick results in a goal every now and again, then any side can cope with a luxury player, yet Walcott's pace is an asset that is rarely complimented by an end product.

In truth, this became a comfortable holding job for Villa and with Wenger pacing the touchline with increasingly animation antics, panic began to spread like a fatal disease around the Emirates Stadium. Every title race has a defining moment that counts for more than any other and this was rapidly feeling as if was the moment when Arsenal's challenge would unravel.

Even when time is short, this team like to play their way out of trouble and as they completed their 20-pass moves in front of a compact Villa backline, their demise was apparently inevitable, but they managed to drain one final chance out of the game and it earned them a point that keeps them on top of the table.

Substitute Nicklas Bendtner provided the finishing touch deep into injury time and Wenger's obvious relief on the touchline was confirmed as he met his admirers in the media. 'If we had lost this game, it would have been very hard for us to come back,' conceded a relieved Arsenal manager. 'As it is, I believe the point we have gained against a difficult opponent in Villa could be crucial come the end of the season.

'Manchester United are now the favourites for the title and they seem to have all the momentum, but we are still one point ahead at the top of the league and have to make sure the dip in form we have suffered comes to an end now.

'The desire in this team means we refuse to be beaten or to concede we cannot win this championship and while we clearly suffered a hangover from the events of the last week in this game, I hope we can grow once again from here.'

The leveller was cruel on a Villa side who battled so hard to secure what would have been a famous victory and manager Martin O'Neill struggled to hide his disappointment as he reflected on the glory that had passed him by.

'The mood is our dressing room is of desperate disappointment,' said the ex-Celtic manager. 'We feel like we have been beaten here and to play that well and only come away with a point is heartbreaking. We played brilliantly against a top class side and no one can dispute that we deserved to win the game. It is a sign of how far we have come that we can take on a side like Arsenal and play as well as we did.'

Arsenal are clearly beginning to crack and if they do go out of the Champions League in Milan on Tuesday, you wonder whether their demise will kick-off in earnest.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Gabriel Agbonlahor - In the battle of the two speediest England strikers of the day, the Villa man stole all the accolades. He deserved to finish this game as a winner after he tormented the Arsenal defence throughout.

• FOOD WATCH: Rarely have the media been treated to the sort of culinary delight that was a beautiful piece of beef prior to kick-off. The dish would not been out of place in a top class restaurant.

• SICK BRUMMIES: The travelling Villa fans covered themselves in shame as they wasted just 14 minutes before signing derogatory songs comparing stricken Arsenal striker Eduardo to amputee Heather Mills-McCartney. It was an example of football fans sinking to gutter level.

• INJURY NEWS: Villa defender Curtis Davies is out for a lengthy period after rupturing his Achilles tendon. He will be operated on immediately.

• ARSENAL VERDICT: There can be little doubt that they are beginning to crack and you wonder whether the walls will tumble around Arsene Wenger if his side go out of the Champions League at the San Siro on Tuesday night. They are hanging on admirably, but look less like potential Premier League winners than ever.

• VILLA VERDICT: They may have been let down by their shameful supporters, but Martin O'Neill's side showed they are now a match for one of the Premier League's established big four. Along with Everton, they will push Liverpool close for a Champions League place.


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