Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0
Captain Cesc Fabregas came off the bench to inspire the Gunners to a 3-0 win over Aston Villa which hauls them back into the Barclays Premier League title race.
The Spaniard, who had been out with a hamstring problem, netted a superb free-kick on 65 minutes and then scored a fine breakaway goal before being substituted as a precaution.
Abou Diaby netted a third in stoppage time at Emirates Stadium, curling in a low effort from the edge of the area after a powerful run.
Villa – who had already beaten Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool this season – looked dangerous on the break but could not make the most of their best spell of pressure midway through the second half.
Arsene Wenger’s men are now just four points behind leaders Chelsea, and with a match in hand on the sides around them – a position which looked inconceivable following their defeat here against the Blues at the end of November.
The hosts started brightly and Brad Friedel saved well from defender Thomas Vermaelen at the far post following a corner, before Croatia striker Eduardo shot straight at the Villa keeper after collecting the ball from Diaby and turning in the box.
However, Villa – winners at Old Trafford just before Christmas – are a well-organised unit under Martin O’Neill and the physical presence of England forward Emile Heskey caused the Arsenal defence cause for concern.
Following a swift counter-attack by the visitors, Ashley Young saw his shot deflected behind off Alex Song.
The Cameroon midfielder – set to head off to the African Nations Cup next month - was lucky to only get a stern talking to by referee Phil Dowd after hauling down Heskey as Villa looked to break quickly again.
From the resulting free-kick, Villa had the ball in the net, but only after Richard Dunne bundled into Manuel Almunia, the effort correctly ruled out for the foul on the Arsenal keeper.
Arsenal, though, were soon back on the offensive, with Nasri’s dipping effort deflected over and Song then just off target from the resulting corner.
Denilson was bundled down right on the edge of the penalty area but the Brazilian’s effort hit the wall, then Bacary Sagna’s follow-up flew over.
At the start of the second half, Diaby’s run down the right was halted by Young, who picked up a yellow card for his troubles which rules the forward out of the Liverpool game on Tuesday.
Eduardo’s deep free-kick was pushed away by Friedel before the Villa defence scrambled the ball off their goalline following a corner.
With 33 minutes left, Denilson was replaced by Fabregas.
Eduardo was unfortunate to see his close-range effort cleared by Warnock after a clever exchange with Andrey Arshavin down the left.
Friedel then denied the Russian with a full stretch save after Fabregas had weaved into the area, and Dunne cleared as Eduardo looked to knock the loose ball in.
On 65 minutes, Arsenal were awarded a free-kick 23 yards out when Dunne tripped Fabregas – and it proved costly as the Spaniard stepped up to curl a sublime effort up over the wall and into the top left corner.
Arsenal were lifted by the goal and looked full of confidence as they poured forward – and fittingly, the skipper helped Arsenal wrap up the points.
In the 81st minute, after a spell of Villa pressure, Traore hit a long diagonal pass out to Theo Walcott on the right. The substitute dashed forward before touching the ball into the path of the onrushing Fabregas, who swept home a 12th goal of the season.
The Spaniard, though, appeared to have aggravated his hamstring problem and was replaced by Aaron Ramsey for the closing stages.
Almunia made a brave save to deny Gabriel Agbonlahor, before Diaby netted Arsenal’s third goal in stoppage-time, finishing low from the edge of the area.