Europe Beckons As Bukayo Saka Leads Arsenal To Vital Win At Villa Park

The Gunners have their England winger to thank for a crucial three points in the race for the top four
14:31, 19 Mar 2022

Arsenal strengthened their claim for a first top four finish in five years with a 1-0 win at Aston Villa. Bukayo Saka’s outstanding display of attacking guile, and his well-taken goal, ultimately proved the difference at Villa Park. After a remarkably one-sided first half, Steven Gerrard’s man battled back in the second. It wasn’t enough to take the points though, and Arsenal are now four points clear of Manchester United in their quest for Champions League football.

Arsenal attacked with intensity from the first whistle, and Aston Villa found themselves pegged back for the majority of the first half. Bukayo Saka was the creative hub for the Gunners, and it felt like the England star was involved in everything good his side did.

36-year-old Ashley Young took the place of injured Lucas Digne in the Villa right-back spot, and endured a torrid time. He was beaten by Saka in a move that culminated with Emile Smith Rowe sending a shot over. Saka’s in-swinging cross saw Ezri Konsa awkwardly draw a save from his own goalkeeper, ex-Arsenal man Emi Martinez. 

Saka got the goal his efforts had merited when a well-worked short free kick routine with Cedric Soares saw a cross trouble the Villa back-line. Saka ran to the edge of the penalty area and arrived just in time to fire the loose ball past Martinez. This was Arsenal’s 2000th Premier League goal, and it seems fitting that it was scored by a player who promises so much for the future.

Even the first half’s most controversial moment centred around Arsenal’s effervescent right-winger. England teammate Tyrone Mings won the ball, but followed through with a lunging tackle that saw Saka receive treatment. The Arsenal players were furious Mings was only booked, but the fact the centre-half went in low and controlled was cited as the reason harsher punishment was not used.

Gunners goalkeeper Bernd Leno enjoyed the quietest of halves, but pulled off a spectacular catch just before the half-time whistle. A long ball into his box saw Leno leap over his own defender Gabriel to collect the delivery. It was a harsh landing, and showed tremendous bravery from the German.

Smith Rowe had a presentable opportunity at the commencement of the second half. A clever corner found him unmarked on the edge of the box, as Martin Odegaard drew away several Arsenal markers. Arsenal’s top scorer saw his swerving shot saved, but it was an indication the Gunners would continue in the attacking manner they had displayed in the first half.

Villa began to find their feet as an attacking force. Gabriel did brilliantly to head the ball clear of an advancing Ollie Watkins. Without the Portugal defender’s intervention, Watkins looked certain to score. Young also stretched Kieran Tierney into a defensive header from a searching cross. At this point Danny Ings began to warm up, as Steven Gerrard no doubt sensed opportunities were starting to come his side’s way.

John McGinn went the closest of any Villan so far, as he narrowly bent a shot wide of Leno’s far post. It’s the sort of goal McGinn has made his trademark from midfield, but he could not quite make it work on this occasion. Watkins would exchange with Matty Cash and cleverly cut inside, with his shot narrowly deflected wide by Tierney. The game was starting to resemble a reversal of fortunes from the first half, with Arsenal now the side pegged back.

Substitute Leon Bailey almost made an instant impact, with his whipped cross to fellow replacement Bertrand Traore causing a panicked clearance. There was frustration from Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta as his side continued to ship chances. The Spaniard was asked to return to his technical area after one foray to the touchline.

A looping header from Ings caused some defensive worries, but the effort went over the bar. Time was running out for Villa, who were creating chances with regularity but not finishing them. Ings drew a block from Tierney in injury time, as the former Celtic man once again made a decisive defensive contribution. As the clock ticked down, it became clear this was just not Aston Villa’s day.

Arteta has led his team into the international break in a great position. His side have come through a tricky away fixture without first-choice keeper Aaron Ramsdale due to injury and Gabriel Martinelli through illness. Once players return from their national teams, what happens next could define Arsenal’s season.

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