Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2

Arsenal secured their first points of the festive fixture list with a well earned victory at Villa Park courtesy of Robin Van Persie with his 16th goal of the season and substitute Yossi Benayoun who scored three minutes before full time. Marc Albrighton had levelled for Villa nine minutes after the break, it was the Premiership’s 20,000 goal, but for the Gunners this was a valuable three points to bounce back from defeat at the Etihad.

Deep into time added on, former Spurs player Alan Hutton was shown a second yellow card for a reckless tackle on Thomas Vermaelen. Having been shown a first yellow for dissent only moments earlier, it was perhaps not the most clever thing the Villa man will ever do. On the back of their disappointing loss to Liverpool, the home side asked some searching questions of another makeshift Arsenal defence. Francis Coquelin was given a start at right back, with Thomas Vermaelen asked to play at left back. Per Mertersacker partnered the impressive Laurent Koscielny at the heart of the defence.

This was perhaps Koscielny’s best outing in an Arsenal shirt, he tackled, headed strongly under pressure and broke up the Villa attack with a new found conviction and determination, and that bodes well for the Gunners. The travelling north London support certainly thought so, chanting his name for the first time one can recall.

There was hardly any Arsenal attack of significance, when referee Jon Moss awarded the away side a penalty. Gervinho and Theo Walcott have a well rehearsed routine when they switch wings, and it was on one such occasion when the Gunners took the lead. Walcott’s sublime Johan Cruyffesque skill was too good for Ciaran Clarke who held back Arsenal’s number 14. Up stepped Van Persie to strike the spot kick left footed and with power into the roof of Brad Guzan’s net after 16 minutes. Moments later, Walcott found himself clear and in for a second Arsenal goal, but this time Guzan had come racing off his line to clear.

In Gabriel Agbonlahor, Villa always posed a threat, and only a fine reflex save from Wojciech Szczesny kept out the Villa man’s 6th minute header. Agbonlahor saw another effort hit the ground and over the bar, after Coquelin failed to deal with Charles Nzogbia’s left sided run. Arsenal needed a second goal, and it should have arrived on the half hour mark. Gervinho and Van Persie combined to set up Aaron Ramsey, but the Wales captain lashed wide when he had more time for composure on the ball.

Arsene Wenger has called for more goals from set pieces and he clearly has Per Mertersacker in mind. The giant German almost got his first Arsenal goal on 55 minutes, but Guzan diverted his effort for a corner. By then, Villa’s threatened leveller had arrived. Vermaelen and Mertersacker were not on the same wavelength, and once again, when effective action was needed, in slipped Albrighton to squeeze past Szczesny.

The home side went in search of the lead, but the Gunners dug deep. A series of quick corners from Van Persie and Mikel Arteta came to nothing, with the Holland marksman cruelly booked for diving when replays showed he had been felled by Ricahrd Dunne. On came Benayoun and Andrey Arshavin for Gervinho and Ramsey, and that injected new found belief. More of a passing game came to the fore and Arshavin had a shot that deflected for another corner. Villa have been noted for conceding easily at set pieces this season, and concentrated their efforts on Merttersacker, Vermaelen and Koscielny. When Van Persie swung in the corner, Villa failed to spot the run of Benayoun and his free header found the target for the winner. Cue massive celebrations in the away end at Villa Park.

An exchange of words between Hutton and the referee after an altercation with Van Persie earned the Villa man a yellow card. Moments later after his crude scything down of Vermaelen, Hutton was sent off the pitch, with a cheery goodbye from Van Persie to boot. Arsenal held on for a deserved win, and one that will keep them in the mix at the top of the Premiership““