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28 Minutes Later – Fabregas Cameo Sinks Villa

Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas emerged from the dugout to score twice in a 3-0 triumph, inflating the Gunners’ title aspirations and denting Villa’s top four credentials simultaenously.

 The Spaniards electrifying brace came during a superb 28-minute period of the second half, before being forced back off with a recurrence of the hamstring injury which had initially restricted him to the bench.

Fabregas’ precise free-kick and first-time finish combined with Abou Diaby’s clinical third, added gloss to a scoreline which was slightly harsh on the visitors.

Arsene Wenger emphasised the importance of this fixture from the outset of the pre-match build up, and his side were bolstered by the return of natural full back Armand Traore, replacing the more narrow Mikael Silvestre.

Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa have been strong in recent weeks, and were gunning for a clean sweep of the so-called ‘Big Four’ after dismantling Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool in their own backyards.

Arsenal started brightly during the opening exchanges, passing intricately around the 18-yard box, with the attacking trio of Nasri, Eduardo and Arshavin rotating at will,  keeping the visiting defence on edge.

It appeared that the Gunners would take advantage of their early attacking impetous when Abou Diaby battled past Steven Warnock and laid up for Eduardo. The Croatian turned Richard Dunne with ease but the out-of-sorts striker could only muster a feeble toe-poke into the gloves of Brad Friedel.

Villa gifted Arsenal a free-kick in a promising position on the edge of their own area, but Denilson failed to provide a repeat performance of his spectacular effort against Hull City last weekend – the Brazilian could only manage to drill the ball into the wall.

The contest began to develop into an intriguing battle between Arsenal’s passing through the midfield and Aston Villa’s counterattacking style, with the latter looking more likely to make the breakthrough due to the fraught nature of the home sides defending.

The brute strength of the in-form Emile Heskey proved a handful for Bacary Sagna at times and the inventive James Milner threatened to weave his magic at every touch of the ball. Even the fleet footed Armand Traore appeared unable to comprehend the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and boyhood Arsenal fan Ashley Young, as the visitors sought the cutting edge that would put them ahead.

However, the previously free-scoring Midlanders rarely pressed Manuel Almunia into action from open play, and the central pairing of William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen remained water-tight.

The interval proved to be almost as decisive as the introduction of Fabregas, though, as the words of Arsene Wenger saw the Gunners attacking instincts reborn as they forced the visitors on to the backfoot for much of the second period.

Buckling under pressure, Carlos Cuellar was forced to clear off his own line from Gallas, before Friedel smothered Arshavin’s shot from close range.

However, the visitors defensive shell was finally cracked, ten minutes after the introduction of the orchestral Fabregas in place of the more industrious Denilson.

Felled by Dunne on the edge of the penalty area, the Spaniard brushed himself down before bending a sumptuous free-kick past Friedel which gave the American no chance.

The relief around the Emirates Stadium was clear to see as the man of the moment stormed his way to the corner of the ground to celebrate with the fans.

Suddenly the tension was unwound and the match became a wildly more open affair as Villa went in search of an equaliser.

The hunt for a point was halted, however, after an uncharacteristically sloppy touch by Milner gifted Traore possession deep inside his own territory.

The young Frenchman picked out Theo Walcott with a searching ball who stretched past Warnock before feeding Fabregas to finish a slick counterattacking move.

That would be the last action of note by the Gunners’ captain, who was replaced by Aaron Ramsey after damaging his already injured hamstring through his desire to keep up with the pacy England winger.

Diaby then added a third, slotting home from 18-yards after a cantering run through the Villa defence.

It may only be for a couple of hours, but Arsenal are second and within four points of leaders Chelsea with a game in hand.

However, wins in both of their next Premiership fixtures (Portsmouth away, Bolton at home) will see them not only cement second place but also put them within a point of the summit.

The talking point amongst Arsenal fans tonight though, will be the length of Fabregas’ injury.

By Arsene Wenger’s own admission it was a throw of the dice to be made in only the most urgent of circumstances, and it proved to be one that paid off; the only question remaining is how hefty will the price of his gamble be?

ARSENAL 3 (Fabregas 2, Diaby)

Team: Almunia, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Traore, Denilson (Fabregas 57, Ramsey 84), Diaby, Song, Nasri, Eduardo (Walcott 63), Arshavin

Unused Subs: Fabianski, Silvestre, Eboue, Vela

Booked: Song

ASTON VILLA 0

Team: Friedel, L Young (Delph 76), Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock, Downing, A Young, Milner, Petrov, Agonlahor, Heskey (Carew 63)

Unused Subs: Guzan, Beye, Collins, Sidwell, Reo-Coker

Booked: Delph, Cuellar, A Young

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