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Arsenal playmaker Santi Cazorla rescued Arsene Wenger from another disappointing result with a late winner to seal a 2-1 victory against Aston Villa.
Cazorla opened the scoring in the sixth minute but Villa came back strongly and equalised through Andreas Weimann after the break.
Arsenal threw everything at Paul Lambert’s men but could not find a way past Brad Guzan until Cazorla, who is enjoying an impressive first season at the club, struck with five minutes remaining.
The Spaniard, who now has 11 goals for the club, drifted in and out of the game but took his two strikes brilliantly.
It was a victory that puts pressure on Tottenham Hotspur, who now have a one-point advantage over their rivals ahead of their game at West Ham on Monday, while Villa find themselves in the relegation zone but, on this evidence, certainly have the players to stay up.
Watched by owner Stan Kroenke, making a rare visit to north London, Arsenal started well. Jack Wilshere capitalised on a poor backpass and raced at goal but the midfielder fired straight at Brad Guzan.
Cazorla then lifted the atmosphere with Arsenal’s opener in the sixth minute. Nathan Baker blocked the Spain midfielder’s initial shot after some good work by Wilshere but the former Malaga player made no mistake with his second effort, slotting past Guzan with a beautiful curling effort.
Urged on by an animated Lambert from the touchline, Villa looked to hit straight back. Charles N’Zogbia raced down the right past Thomas Vermaelen and pulled the ball back for Gabriel Agbonlahor but Wojciech Szczesny saved.
N’Zogbia cantered down the flank moments later but Agbonlahor was unable to keep up with him and he arrived just too late to tap the Frenchman’s cross in. Weimann was the next man to charge at the Gunners defence, laying the ball off to N’Zogbia only for Szczesny to parry well and Vermaelen to hook the ball clear.
Villa’s attacks led to a nervous atmosphere inside the Emirates but Theo Walcott brought them to the edge of their seats with a teasing curler that flew inches over Guzan’s goal.
The visitors continued to pour forward, however. Matt Lowton nutmegged Abou Diaby and entered the Arsenal area but Vermaelen came to the rescue with a last-gasp tackle. Lowton caught the Belgian in his follow-through and was booked for the foul, while Diaby entered the book for a clumsy challenge on N’Zogbia.
The hosts produced an impressive move just before the break, with Cazorla finding Olivier Giroud who was denied by Guzan.
In the second half, Arsenal started to dominate but were reluctant to shoot on goal, much to the annoyance of the home crowd and as they threw players forward, they were left vulnerable at the back.
Weimann served notice of what was to come when he went on a rampaging counterattack down the right and crossed for Agbonlahor to head wide, and his next foray on goal produced an equaliser.
The goal came straight from an Arsenal corner and when Carl Jenkinson was unable to clear a long punt downfield, Weimann embarked on an unchallenged 40-yard run before beating Szczesny with a weak shot.
The Gunners’ troubles almost worsened soon after when Christian Benteke found space at the back post but Per Mertesacker got in front of the Belgian before he could head on goal.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger decided to gamble, throwing on Lukas Podolski for Jenkinson, and the hosts laid diege to the visitors’ box.
Guzan saved brilliantly to deny Giroud from point-blank range as Arsenal continued to pile forward, but Wenger’s charges got their reward five minutes from time when Nacho Monreal swung a low ball into the area and Cazorla converted with a first-time shot, much to the relief of Wenger and the home fans.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger: "Santi Cazorla played very well and delivered in a game that was very important. He's a great player. He has shown he's a great football player and I'm happy and grateful he delivered those two important goals today.
“I didn't expect him to score so many goals for us. He has 11 games to go so he could get a few more. For me, he's a complete football player because he also has spirit. He was a bit tired in the last few minutes, but he continued to fight. He's a good example to follow. He's happy to come and play and practice every day, and he gives you absolutely everything on a football pitch."
Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert: "We shouldn't have lost it. We were exceptional in parts of that game and we should have been in the lead at half-time. At the very least we should have come away with a point. We've played like that for a number of weeks: West Brom, Everton, Newcastle in the second half, West Ham.
"We've just got to try and get more points on the board. We've got massive games still to come, and there'll be a lot of twists and turns this season. I have the belief in ourselves that we'll always be okay. If the lads keep playing like that, that's all I can ask for."
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