Arsenal 3-2 Aston Villa: Back From the Dead

Arsenal's season was clinically dead for about 35 minutes. Hopelessness and dread once again descended onto Ashburton Grove in a sickly gray pall, the reaper closing in with sickle in hand. All seemed lost, that is, until Dr. Richard Dunne resuscitated the patient with one of the stupidest and most needless fouls in recent FA Cup history.

Believe me, I'm not complaining.

Let's start from the beginning, though. Arsene Wenger fielded largely a full-strength lineup, with the main exception being Lukasz Fabianski deputizing for Wojceich Szczesny in goal. This move elicited more than a few groans, but the rest of the lineup seemed strong enough to see off what has been a largely unimpressive Aston Villa side. Another heartening sign was found on the bench, where Mikael Arteta and Bacary Sagna (YAY!) made their returns from injury.

The opening minutes belonged to the Arsenal, the ball pinging around from red shirt to red shirt with only the occasional intervention from someone in white. Aaron Ramsey was the first to test the returning Shay Given in the Villa goal, but his shot was weak and easily handled. A minute later, a free kick was worked out to Thomas Vermaelen, whose shot was anything but weak. He brilliantly found space through Robbie Keane's legs and still managed to get his shot to rise. Given had to be exceptionally sharp to claw it out for a corner.

Villa found their sea legs eventually though, and were assisted in their cause by the now-usual comedy stylings of Fabianski. I've alluded to it before, but it's at a point where keeping him at Arsenal borders on the cruel-and-unusual. He's got some talent but badly needs to play under a far less harsh spotlight than the Premier League - I imagine the Eridivise or something similar would do him good. Anyway, he made a right old hash of a backpass and nearly gifted a goal to Villa. This was followed by Theo Walcott finding plenty of space in the area after a great ball from Tomas Rosicky. Walcott took far too long to shoot though, and fired well wide under pressure.

This was the point where, just a little, doubt crept into the Arsenal side.

A perhaps fortuitous call from referee Michael Jones led to a free kick in prime territory - central and just outside the area. Robin van Persie weakly dinked it into the wall, though. If frustration was growing here, it only grew at the sight of Fabianski charging out and getting nothing but air after a cross rebounded off of Laurent Koscielny. Luckily, Darren Bent wasn't able to capitalize.

Villa, feeling it now, came right back and should have at least tested Fabianski a minute later. Gabriel Agbonlahor roasted Francis Coquelin (who had a torrid time at right back) and had plenty of time to cross to a disgracefully-open Bent. Luckily for us, his cross was poorly over-hit.

The goal was coming though, and sure enough the visitors found it in the 33rd minute. A simple training ground short-corner shredded the Arsenal defense, with just about no one out wide to cut off the delivery into the middle. Keane's cross to the far-post was perfect, but the fact of the matter is that there were three guys in red standing there. Fabianski couldn't come out with the mass of humanity there, but one of them should have dealt with it. Instead, Dunne powerfully rose over a weak jump from Koscielny (a poor effort from the Frenchman there) and hammered a header into the net. The Gunners had lost control of the match, and the Villains got their just rewards there.

We were hoping for a reaction from our guys after the goal was conceded. Oh, we got one, all right. As bad as they were in that stretch leading up to the goal, they were worse afterwards. Passes were misplaced, Coquelin was routinely getting destroyed by Agbonlahor, and even when Carlos Cuellar gifted possession to Ramsey in the penalty area, he couldn't do anything with it.

The excellent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stung Given's palms from distance as the half wound to a close, but Villa came right back up the other end and seemingly delivered the coup de grace to the remnants of our season. For some reason, Per Mertesacker was all the way up in the Villa penalty area despite it only being 0-1 with halftime approaching. Villa repelled the attack and off they went on the counter, Stephen Ireland playing a gorgeous ball to Bent with Coquelin all at sea once again. His powerful drive was well-saved by Fabianski, but the rebound came back out to Bent. Coquelin still wasn't back, and the guys in the middle were all just kind of standing around. Still, Bent didn't have much to shoot at with the angle so acute, but he somehow slid the ball past Fabianski's dive and into the one angle it could have gone in.

I am not a fan of praising Bent, but that was a hell of a finish.

Needless to say, the atmosphere at halftime was funereal, a stunned silence enveloping the space normally filled with drinking and camaraderie. This was one of those all-too-familiar moments this season where it felt like our next step would send us collectively plunging into the abyss.

We probably will never know what the Boss told his charges in the locker room at halftime. Whatever words were spoken or objects were thrown, it worked. Directly after the second-half whistle, Arsenal played with the verve and purpose that we know they have inside them. It's exactly what I was saying in my piece before this game - the fortitude and ability are there, they just can't seem to harness it at will. Either way, in retrospect, I think that Villa assumed that Arsenal would remain in the fetal position for the second 45, and in many cases they'd have been right to do so. This time, they weren't manning their posts as the rampaging hordes came through, and they paid for it dearly.

A few minutes after the restart, Arsenal so nearly took the lead - from a corner, of all things. The first half saw the usual cavalcade of crap set pieces, many of which failed to beat the first man (Rosicky had a great game as I'll get to in a bit, but he shouldn't be taking corners). This time, RVP's effort looped deliciously into the path of Mertesacker, who nodded it down to the far corner. Sadly, Ireland was there to toe-poke it off the line.

That was just the opening sortie, though. The main phalanx was coming, embodied by Stiliyan Petrov having to make a saving tackle to take the ball off of Walcott in the area, and neat interplay between Ramsey and Theo leading to the former hesitating too long and failing to test Given.

The walls wouldn't hold forever. Three chances in three minutes went unfulfilled, but the fourth would not.

Here's the thing - Richard Dunne is a wonderful defender. You may remember that in our last meeting with Villa in the league, I had said he was the real Man of the Match. He has enough raw ability to play for any side in the world, and is a major reason for Ireland's rebirth as a serious international threat. However, the reason he plies his trade for Villa instead of Manchester United or Chelsea is his capacity for astonishing mental meltdowns. Case in point, Alex Song's through-ball was a little too heavy for Ramsey to get to. Had Dunne done nothing at all, it would have been scooped up by Given or otherwise cleared away. Instead, Dunne came barreling in and took out Ramsey with a sliding challenge. He can complain all he wants, but that's a stonewall penalty on a play where there was literally zero danger for his side.

More importantly, had Dunne not committed the foul, there is certainly a chance that the missed chances would have led to the belief draining out of the side, and they may have seen out the game from there. It took what may have been a brief momentum change and calcified it into something far more permanent. The truth of the matter was that Robin was never going to miss that penalty - we could tell that even with our morale in the gutter from the first half. The spot-kick was summarily dispatched low and in the corner, Given having guessed wrong.

One small complaint, though it ended up not mattering. Riddle me this, Mr. Jones...if the foul was enough for a penalty, how was it not enough for a booking? Dunne was already on a yellow - I'd love to see the explanation for why he stayed on the pitch. It didn't matter, but it was quite vexing at the time.

Anyway, I think we knew at that point that something special was on. Out of the silence came a spark of life, the songs and chants coming at a furious pace. Villa were all over the shop, and two minutes later the match was level.

Walcott, the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde footballer, showed both sides of his game today. He was perhaps the worst of a bad lot in the first half, as penetrative and effective as a marshmallow spear. After the interval, he charged at the Villa defense with ferocity. He left Stephen Warnock for dead, and came in on Given. The Irish No. 1 blocked his initial effort, but in the confusion of the rebound pinballing around, that hyperactive mutant Alan Hutton could only slice his clearance into the face of Walcott.

The way this season has gone, you'd have expected it to go out to safety or into the path of another Villa player to start a counter-attack. Yeah, well, not today. Instead, it looped off of Walcott's bonce and past a stunned Given. Cue absolute bedlam amongst the Arsenal support, as there was only ever going to be one result in the match from then on.

Sure enough, it only took four more minutes for Arsenal to take the lead. The red-and-white were submerged in the grave in the 53rd minute, resurrected and routing their opponents in the 60th. Beats the hell out of Lazarus, I'll tell you that.

This time, it was Koscielny at the vanguard, haring into the penalty area with the men in white shirts scrambling to cover. Bent mistimed his challenge and could not rightly complain as Jones once again pointed to the spot. RVP once again sent Given the wrong way on the penalty kick, and Villa's implosion was complete.

Arsenal, to their credit, did not attempt to sit on the lead. Walcott so nearly made it four, his long-range drive parried away by Given. There was a momentary wobble where Koscielny lost Petrov in the area, but Mertesacker covered brilliantly. From that point on, they never threatened again.

The already-buoyant mood was further improved when Rosicky was withdrawn for the returning Arteta. We have unquestionably missed his calm assurance in the center of the park, although the Czech man was brilliant in the second half. He not only kept the offense ticking over with some truly exceptional passing, but he tirelessly chased down the ball and gave their central midfield precious little time and space to operate. Despite only playing 70, he was the Man of the Match in my eyes.

At this point, Arsenal called off the dogs a bit and were content to let time tick by. Villa did have one half-chance on a corner, but Ciaran Clark's header was right at Fabianski. In fairness to our man, he did do well to hang onto it, though.

The 88th minute saw our final two subs come on, and thankfully Andrei Arshavin was not among them. Instead, Thierry Henry came on for a cameo in place of Oxlade-Chamberlain, and more importantly Sagna came on in place of Walcott. He looked a bit rusty and made a hash of one clearance, but it mattered little in the end...and the game practice will do him well on his path back to first-team action.

The four minutes of injury time were navigated with little in the way of threat from a hangdog Villa side resigned to defeat. The final whistle went, and there was much rejoicing way down south in the land of Arsenal.

Before the match, the draw for the 5th round was made. Of course, our main rivals all got lower-league sides, while we travel to the winner of Sunderland v. Middlesbrough. The match finished 1-1 today at the Stadium of Light, so they'll do it again at the Riverside. Whoever wins there though, you have to feel like Arsenal should win that match. It's like I said in my piece from the other day - win this one, see who you get. Win that one, and we're in the quarterfinals. Win that one, and we can seriously start dreaming of silverware once again.

Maybe we can't win the league. Maybe Milan will carve us open in Europe. But, we can win this trophy. We HAVE to win this trophy. Roll on the last 16.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 7, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 5, Mertesacker 7, Coquelin 5, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Henry N/A), Song 7, Ramsey 7, Rosicky 8 (Arteta 7), Walcott 7 (Sagna N/A), van Persie 7

Man of the Match: As mentioned, Tomas Rosicky was the engine that made us go in the second half until he was withdrawn.