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ALL RIGHT NOW, JACK; ASTON VILLA 1 ARSENAL 2 FROM VILLA PARK; Brilliant Wilshere scores one, makes another and shows he is back to his best.

Byline: MARTIN LIPTON Chief Football Writer

A LATE wobble, a few scares, some moments of doubt.

But Arsenal are back at the top.

Back where they want to be. Back with the determination of potential champions, too.

In the end, 75 minutes of domination, orchestrated by Jack Wilshere, meant more than Christian Benteke's quarter-hour of self-discovery.

And when they had to, when the big questions were asked, Arsene Wenger's men had the courage to find the answers.

Wilshere, of course, has been in the shadows, entangled in doubt.

For the first time, the golden boy of English football has looked tarnished, troubled, out of sorts, unsure of a place for his club, let alone his country. The arrival of PS42.5million Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, coupled with Aaron Ramsey's scintillating form, added to the scrutiny.

Yet last night, much to the pleasure of England boss Roy Hodgson, whose good weekend received an extra boost with the return from injury of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the real Wilshere turned up.

The 22-year-old midfielder bossed the game, terrific in possession, seeking to hurt, opening the scoring with a piece of outstanding improvisation, before setting up what proved to be Olivier Giroud's winner in the very next passage of play.

Those 17 seconds of playing time proved decisive, despite the late scares after Benteke woke from four months of slumber.

And after watching first Chelsea and then Manchester City ascend to the summit in the past 48 hours, the Gunners held on to reclaim top spot and further enhance their credentials.

For all the home hope engendered by Benteke's first goal since mid-September, a proper centre-forward's strike, a powerful back-post diving header, it simply came too late.

Indeed, until that point, Benteke summed up Paul Lambert's side - lacking confidence, calmness or assurance.

Admittedly, Villa were not helped by the sickening blow taken full in the face by Nathan Baker from Serge Gnabry's firsthalf shot.

After eight minutes of treatment, with the medics appearing increasingly concerned, Baker was ferried away on a stretcher.

Mercifully, despite the neckbrace and oxygen bag over his mouth, Baker's diagnosis was one of mild concussion rather than anything more serious.

It forced a switch as Lambert abandoned his initial back five - which ceded possession and territory as the Gunners played keep-ball, Giroud missing an early chance - for a quartet. Villa, despite Benteke's struggles, briefly upped the pace.

But Karim El Ahmadi's miss, firing over on the volley from Fabian Delph's cross, proved pivotal as Arsenal struck with brutal efficiency.

Ozil, otherwise far from his best, released Spanish left-back Nacho Monreal with a ball that was exquisite, as was the touch which Wilshere deployed to work it out from under his feet before finding the bottom corner with his left peg.

Straight from the restart, Wilshere harried Delph into an error, taking advantage to tease through to Giroud.

The Frenchman still had work to do, with Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark in close attendance, but he did it brilliantly, clearing his own feet and drilling home.

Villa were booed off by their frustrated fans at the break, scarcely looking likely to add to their paltry tally of seven home goals this season. After the break, Santi Cazorla brought a save from Brad Guzan and had Wilshere's vision, finding substitute Kieran Gibbs for a pull-back, been matched with the same quality from Giroud's finish, the home side would have been dead and buried.

Enter, from nowhere, Benteke. Last season's incarnation.

Finding room on the edge of the box, the Belgium international swivelled but shot wide. Yet, within a minute, there was bravery and desire in abundance as he busted a gut to get on the end of Matt Lowton's cross in from the right.

Suddenly, the ball began to stick to the former Genk striker, Arsenal were under siege, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny having to stand up and be counted.

But they did. Arsenal did. And with Wilshere back, the Gunners have a lot to say about this title race. No doubt.



Guzan 6 Helpless on Arsenal's goals. A pretty thankless task

Lowton 6 Desperately trying to rediscover last season's form

Baker 5 Knocked out by Gnabry's shot. Subbed after worrying delay

Clark 5 Caught a cold on Giroud's goal as Villa's defence crumbled

Vlaar 7 Stopped Giroud and Monreal with determined defending

Luna 6 Scored at the Emirates but spent this game on back foot

Delph 6 Had a decent half chance which he didn't take advantage of

Westwood 6 Hard to shine in a team short of confidence

El Ahmadi 5 Booked. Fired good chance over the Arsenal crossbar

Agbonlahor 5 You must expect more from one of Villa's senior players

Benteke 6 At times a shadow of what he was last season. Took goal well


Bacuna (Baker 21) 5

Weimann (E Ahmadi 73) 5

36% Possession 64%

5 Shots on target 4

4 Shots off target 2

3 Corners 5

4 Offside 5

12 Fouls 9

Ref: N Swarbrick Att: 36,097


Szczesny 6 A spectator for most of the game. Rarely tested

Sagna 7 Tremendous outlet for Arsenal, almost played as a right winger

Mertesacker 7 Imposing game in the heart of Arsenal's defence

Koscielny 7 Some good wrestles with Benteke. Won most of them

Monreal 7 Helped set up opener. Injured after hard Vlaar tackle

Flamini 7 Excellent display, worked hard & barked out instructions

Wilshere MOTM. 8 Scored super opener and then turned creator for Giroud

Ozil 6 Got bullied at times but lovely pass in build-up to opener

Gnabry 7 Started brightly. Tracked back well, showed good promise

Cazorla 7 Always lively, gave ball away for Villa goal

Giroud 6 Back with a goal. Good finish to show he can carry title hopes


Gibbs (Monreal 66) 6

Rosicky (Gnabry 68) 5

Ox-Cham (Rosicky 86) 5

Ox Cham (Rosicky 86)

Arsenal last lost at Villa Park in 1998, a 3-2 defeat

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NUMBER ONE Giroud salutes the goal that put Arsenal in charge

JACK OF ALL TRADES Wilshere slots home to put Arsenal on their way at Villa Park last night
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Title Annotation:Sport; Opinion, Columns
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 14, 2014
Next Article:'Goal could spark spree by Benteke'.

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