Arsenal 3-0 Aston Villa

Arsenal hauled themselves back into the title race on Sunday as

super-sub skipper Cesc Fabregas scored twice in a 3-0 win over

Aston Villa.

The Spaniard, who had been out with a hamstring problem, came

off the bench after 57 minutes at the Emirates Stadium and soon

netted a superb free-kick, then added a fine breakaway goal before

being substituted as a precaution.

Abou Diaby netted a third in stoppage time, 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.