By: John Glynn
Christian Benteke struck twice as Aston Villa came from behind to stun Arsene Wenger’s ‘Title contending’ side.
In front of a clearly disenchanted Emirates audience, Arsenal were easily beaten 3-1 by Paul Lambert’s men, the start to the 2013/2014 campaign that manager Arsene Wenger did not want. As pressure mounts over a lack of new signings in North London, with not one penny of their transfer war chest yet spent, Wenger is already feeling the pressure with 37 league games remaining. Wenger’s only summer signing to date is the free transfer of 20-year-old Yaya Sanogo from Auxerre, and supporters were repeatedly chanting for the club to dig deep and spend some money sooner rather than later. It was a real indication of Arsenal’s transfer inactivity that their starting line-up was identical to the side which ended the final match of last season away to Newcastle. On the other hand, in stark contrast to Wenger, Paul Lambert has recruited six new players and, although only Luna and Leandro Bacuna featured in the opening game, there was a definite sense of clarity involved in their play. With little over two weeks to bolster the squad, Wenger’s immediate priority will be Wednesday’s tricky Champions League play-off first leg at Fenerbahce.
Making the perfect start, The Gunners went a goal up when Olivier Giroud pounced in the sixth minute, producing an elegant finish following excellent play from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down the left flank. Nevertheless, Arsenal were pegged back just 16 minutes later, with the powerful Benteke heading in a rebound after his feeble penalty was saved by Wojciech Szczesny. The Polish shot stopper looked to have atoned for his sins after bringing down Gabriel Agbonlahor for the spot-kick. After playing in Ecuador midweek with the Spanish side, Santi Cazorla was on the bench at the start of the game, but Wenger introduced the gifted midfielder immediately after the halftime break.
Clearly roused by Wenger’s undoubtedly ruthless halftime team talk, Arsenal attacked from the restart, the pressure was mounting on Lambert’s men, and Tomas Rosicky created an opening after getting into the box. However, he failed to test Brad Guzan in the visitor’s goal.
Totally against the run of play, Fabian Delph almost gave Villa the lead, but Arsenal survived when the Englishman’s piercing shot rebounded back off the post. Just moments later, though, Arsenal conceded a second penalty after Laurent Koscielny fouled Agbonlahor. A questionable decision, Benteke didn’t complain, the Belgian striker stepped up and coolly slotted home. Arsenal’s hopes of getting an equaliser suffered a huge blow when Koscielny received a red card, and Villa showed real resolve when Guzan produced an exceptional reflex save to tip Cazorla’s effort onto the bar.
For all of Arsenal’s rather pathetic attempts at equalizing, Wenger’s men conceded a third after Villa debutant Antonio Luna was put through by Andreas Weimann, firing past Szczesny at the near post. Quite literally in Arsenal’s case, if you are not prepared to pay the price, there is a harsh price to be paid. Arsenal’s miserly summer was compounded with this opening-day defeat. Villa were structured, resolute, and took advantage of the controversy caused by some of Anthony Taylor’s decisions. The referee was on the receiving end of some stinging criticism from 63 year old Wenger, who insisted Hamilton’s poor judgment was pivotal in inflicting a home defeat that was both destructive and damning.
Unsurprisingly, the full-time whistle was greeted with a resounding chorus of boos from the home crowd, even though the stadium was half-empty by that point. It was Arsenal’s first home defeat on the season’s opening day in two decades and only Villa’s third victory in 28 trips to the North London side. This is a result that was masterminded by Paul Lambert. The soft spoken manager’s shrewdest piece of business has been convincing Christian Benteke to withdraw his transfer request and sign a new contract. The Belgian’s significance was illustrated once again, the youngster scored or created 49% of Villa’s league goals last season and he is the key to securing Premiership survival for Lambert’s men.
There is a lot to be said about perceptions, Villa, who have spent discreetly this summer, looked a club feeling clearly invigorated. After the final whistle, their jubilant players tossed shirts into the raucous visiting corner. This joyous celebration came on the back of some vibrant counter-attacking. In bleak contrast, Arsenal were a picture of depression, deflated and clearly embarrassed. The demoralizing soundtrack as the crowd exited of demanding some money to be spent spoke volumes. Groundhog Day at the Emirates stadium, Arsenal’s expectations are being undermined by yet another tactically inept transfer window. Sure, absolutely anybody can feel aggrieved after losing a game when, at 1-1, a penalty decision looks controversial, but it is difficult to escape the feeling there is a much bigger problem in North London. Incredibly delicate on numbers, Wenger’s team was not able to combat a dash of intricacy. As always seems to be the case with Wenger, the referee became an easy scapegoat, but surely even the French manager must admit that there is a much bigger problem to address here, a malignant conundrum that is gradually diminishing Arsenal’s credibility. A placard hanging from the upper tier read: “You can’t buy class”. The last word seemed somewhat superfluous, especially when it appears that Arsenal can’t actually buy anyone.
However, forget Arsenal’s shortcomings, Paul Lambert has every right to be delighted with the doggedness shown by his team, especially Gabby Agbonlahor and Benteke. With Weimann complimenting and completing the trident, Lambert has high hopes for his front three. Effusive in his praise of Agbonlahor, Lambert admitted that Gabby was, “unplayable – as good a performance I’ve seen from an individual in many a year.”