WHAT A difference a month makes in the most unpredictable title race the Premier League has ever seen and what a difference Cesc Fabregas makes in just 27 minutes on the pitch.
That was the Christmas thought for the day at the Emirates yesterday as Arsene Wenger’s side beat Aston Villa 3-0 with two stunning goals from their Spanish captain to move within four points of leaders Chelsea with a game in hand.
Fabregas, returning from a hamstring injury, only arrived on the field after 57 minutes and left it six minutes before the end after seemingly suffering a recurrence of the same problem.
But in between his dramatic arrival and sudden departure he scored a wonderful free-kick and an outstanding break-away goal to end Villa’s seven-match unbeaten run and send Arsenal into 2010 as real title contenders.
Contrast that to the scenes on November 29 when Arsenal lost 3-0 at home to Carlo Ancelottti’s side in a match that was billed as men against boys and which saw Didier Drogba steamroll Wenger’s deflated team, leaving them 11 points adrift of first place and facing accusations that they didn’t have the stomach or the inner strength for a title battle.
Who could have possibly predicted at that point that Arsenal, without injured striker Robin van Persie for the rest of the season, would bounce back so assuredly and that Chelsea, who appeared almost imperious in their invincibility, would see their confidence ebb away so quickly and so alarmingly.
But that is exactly what has happened and when Abou Diaby curled home an excellent third for Arsenal late on yesterday afternoon even the worries over Fabregas’ injury could not deflate a home crowd who are suddenly starting to believe that in this bizarre season of so many twists and turns their seemingly shaky team are still very much in with a chance of glory.
After all, Villa went into this match with many experts tipping them to become title contenders themselves if only they could take three points, having matured impressively over the last few months.
Martin O’Neill’s side were searching for their fifth straight league win and having beaten Arsenal here 2-0 last year they more than matched their opponents for long periods – or at least until Fabregas’ arrival changed the whole complexion of the game.
Arsenal, in fact, looked short on ideas, short on confidence and even slovenly at times in a first half that saw the ineffectual Eduardo waste an excellent chance, shooting so weakly from 12 yards that keeper Brad Friedel barely had to move.
In contrast hard-working Villa defended stoutly and looked dangerous on the break, with Ashley Young and Carlos Cuellar having chances and Richard Dunne even putting the ball in the net, albeit after a blatant foul on Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.
Another fluffed shot from Eduardo, this time following a fast-paced break, summed up Arsenal’s problems and the Croatian also saw an under-hit header cleared off the line by Cuellar.
If that list of chances gives the impression Arsenal were dominant, then it’s an impression Wenger’s side hardly warranted because with Andriy Arshavin strangely quiet they lacked punch up front and with Fabregas missing they lacked ideas in midfield. All that changed when the Spaniard came off the bench after 57 minutes.
He announced his arrival with an audacious shot from 40 yards and sealed it by tempting Dunne into an ill-fated tackle on the edge of the area after 65 minutes and curling home a quite sumptuous opener from the resulting free-kick.
Suddenly, with Fabregas providing new energy and Arshavin awoken from his slumbers, Arsenal looked more like a side with genuine title credentials – a point underlined by a sweeping move for their second goal which began with the otherwise impressive James Milner giving the ball away on the right.
Arsenal left-back Traore swept a remarkable cross-field ball to Arshavin high up the pitch on the opposite flank and his intuitive, instant pass sent Fabregas striding into the area to clip home a satisfying clincher.
Unfortunately for Arsenal’s long-term title hopes the Spaniard pulled up clutching his hamstring almost as soon as the ball hit the net, although when Diaby strode through to curl home a third from the edge of the area it was not an afternoon to dwell on negatives.
The result leaves Arsenal breathing down Chelsea’s neck at the top of the table and as possibly the top four’s most in-form team at a time when the structure of the title race is almost certain to be decided.
Certainly manager Wenger, who had stoically predicted after November’s defeat against Chelsea that his team’s championship hopes were not over, had a right to feel self-satisfied as he faced the same journalists who had written off Arsenal’s chances only four weeks previously.
“I think it’s a massive result for the team,” he said. “After the Chelsea defeat I told them to keep the belief high and the desire too and we have done that. I believe this team is talented, is hungry, has a great spirit and for me they deserve to be successful. But we have not won yet anything and sometimes when you haven’t done that you don’t know if you can do it.
“So it was just important for them to keep believing they could come back. It makes it interesting now – we are in a strong position. We can have belief but it’s a long way to go and we have to keep our feet on the ground and continue to improve together.”
Referee: Phil Dowd, 7: There were occasional moans from both managers but Dowd got his decisions right and kept control of the game well. There was no real controversy.
Match rating: *** There was a slow start to the game but Fabregas’ remarkable contribution as a substitute was worth the admission money alone.
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