Two goals in a first-half minute were enough for Arsenal, who surived a late Villa fightback. Plus: beard chat. And bear chat.
Thanks for all your tweets and emails: Heavy Metal Gunner, Mellberg's metal bear, Villa misery and the whole caboodle. Stick around on site for all the reports and reaction. But from me, cheerio!
Villa were so much better in the second half. So much better. Perhaps that's the moment Benteke rediscovers his mojo and their season turns around. Arsenal, meanwhile, are back on top of the pile.
PEEP! PEEEEP!! PEEEEEEP!!! And it is.
90+6 min: Arsenal win a throw in 30 yards from their own goal. That should be that.
90+5 min: Bacuna's loose pass ends another Villa attack. Koscielny has wandered off to the shower block with a stack of 20 pence pieces.
90+4 min: Still camped. Mertesacker is inflating an air bed.
90+3 min: Arsenal are camped on the edge of their own box. I think I just saw Sagna set up a Calor gas stove.
90+1 min: Arsenal breakbut Giroud can't pick out Özil with his pass.
90 min: A roar from the home faithful as the fourth official indicates that there will be a minimum of six minutes added time to play.
89 min: What a chance! Lowton sand-wedges in a cross, Benteke wins the header, but he can't guide it past Szczesny from eight yards. Oh my, that might have been the moment.
86 min: Rosicky's evening started late and ends early. That injury means he needs to be replaced, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain comes on for his first appearance since the opening day.
85 min: Agbonlahor goes into the book for a tug on Özil.
84 min: Bacuna miscues a cross to the edge of the area – Westwood has a wild swing and connects only with Aston air.
82 min: A vital header from Mertesacker as Weimann looks to pick out Benteke at the back post. The intensity level here has just gone from 0-100 in about three seconds.
80 min: While Rosicky gets some treatment for a bloody nose, here's definitive news of our Heavy Metal Gunner:
79 min: Rosicky goes down with an injury. Villa don't put the ball out straight away. Cue general mardiness.
66 min: Monreal is replaced by Gibbs.
78 min: Now Villa are back in it, Arsenal could be there for the taking. They've not had to get out of second gear yet, and by this stage it might be too late.
Ahem. Lowton robs Ozil and sends in a low cross so vicious it drinks chianti and fava beans. Benteke, diving in a the far post, scores his first goal since the 15th century.
75 min: "ARE U THE BLOKE WITH THE PLEASANT VOICE ON THE POD...?" wonders Alex Simpson. Well, I can hardly say no. Though those who endured my karaoke Losing My Religion on Saturday may disagree.
74 min: Decent effort from Benteke, who chests down under pressure, hold off a challenge, but can only send his effort bobbling wide as he tumbled backwards.
73 min: Weimann replaces El Ahmadi.
71 min: Villa's threat (such at it is) all comes from midfield. When you're lumbered with a striker as out-of-sorts as Benteke it's almost as if they're playing with 10 men. It's worth persevering with him as the magic must surely come back at some point, but until then it's a huge hindrance for Lambert's side.
69 min: Off comes Gnabry, on comes Rosicky.
68 min: Villa continue to press, but it's hardly hot-knife-through-butter stuff. More the back of a wooden spoon slapping against the breasts of a roast chicken.
66 min: "I think what may be unique about Villa is that no one cares whether they're in the Premiership or Championship next season. Just no one cares," writes Elliot Barnsley. Come on, Elliot. Buck up. Look, here's Villa winning the European Cup to cheer you up:
65 min: Lovely stuff from Villa, with the entire four-man midfield combining to set up Westwood on the edge of the box. He strikes his shot sweetly but it's straight at Szczesny.
63 min: It's all gone a bit flat. Which, from Villa's perspective, is something of an improvement from the first half.
61 min: Özil and Gnabry combine neatly down the right, then the former switches it to Cazorla. His shot from distance fizzes in, but Guzan drops on it comfortably.
60 min: "Curse you, Ashdown, and your ocular conundrum.," writes Raymond Puzey. "You have forced my hand and made me email Arsenal asking about the beard in question after a lunchtime spent googling Arsenal’s staff, reserves, and transfers to no avail. If I am unable to sleep tonight, may it weigh heavy on your conscience." He's on the 8.45 to Uxbridge!
58 min: Monreal is hobbling but it looks like he'll continue.
56 min: Ron Vlaar slides in with a superb tackle to deny Monreal as the full-back scurries into the box. It was one of those challenges when both playes kick opposite sides of the ball at the same time, it possibly saved a goal, and the Spaniard has come off worst.
54 min: The Holte End screams for a penalty as Koscielny and Benteke grapple in the area like Jake the Snake Roberts and Ravishing Rick Rude. Nothing given, correctly I think.
53 min: … Bacuna clunks the thing into the wall.
52 min: Agbonlahor pilfers the ball from Wilshere. Wilshere pulls him down. Free-kick. Central. Dangerous …
51 min: "In the reprinting of your 2012 blog, you failed to mention one thing," writes Gavin Digby, underestimating the things I failed mention by a considerable margin I'm sure. "The Championship is a much more entertaining league. It is more exciting and has many more clubs in with a chance of winning. I've been advocating Villa 'giving up' for years.
"The only problem with the Championship is that you have the unfortunate problem of being promoted. I, for one, cannot wait for all the rich clubs to form their own Euro league so the rest of the clubs can have a competitive competition."
50 min: 85% sure? That's good enough for me!
49 min: Villa have started this second half with a bit of vim and vigour. Bacuna slams a shot straight at Szczesny from the edge of the box.
48 min: Email of the night: "John, OM Bloody G, I am sitting on the train and I am 85% sure that Metal Gooner man is sitting diagonally opposite me on the Metroplitan line to Uxbridge," writes Mike Chan. "I can't take a picture because there are three City boys blocking my shot and talking very loudly. He has the full on beard and red and white scarf. Balls, he just got off at Baker St – baahhh!!! (Ps: I might be wrong but I am definitely not lying)."
47 min: Agbonlahor zips a neat pass into Bacuna, who helps the thing on, but Delph can't wrap his foot round an effort from the edge of the area.
46 min: Villa swing in an early corner (hard-earned by Bacuna). Szczesny punches clear and then an unidentitfied Villa player hammers the ball over the bar from the edge of the box.
Peep! Off we go again then.
I wrote this in a blog back in April 2012. Still applicable?
Aston Villa are a sad sight these days – tired, directionless, timid, miserably shambling through another season of nothingness. What enjoyment is to be had on the Villa Park terraces these days? They are a club that seem overworked, huffing and puffing just to tread water in the Premier League, running to stand still. They need to recharge their batteries, to find some momentum, to stop constantly fire-fighting and find a way to move forward as a club.
What better way to do that than with a year or two (or more) in the Championship? Plenty of clubs have found relegation to have a restorative effect. Norwich are probably the best example. Between 2005 and 2009 the Canaries were going nowhere fast, scratching around in the bottom half of the Championship, good enough to stay up but only just. It took relegation to League One in 2009 and the appointment of Paul Lambert after a disastrous start to that season in the third tier to turn the club around.
Instead of grubbing around for points – the club won only 56 league games in four seasons from 2004-05 – they were able to strip things down, start again and build momentum, momentum that stays with them today. If the Canaries had somehow cobbled together enough points to stay up over the final few weeks of the 2008-09 season they would not be in the position they are today. Newcastle are another who have bounced back from the drop in style.
Alex McLeish – who would almost certainly be replaced in the event of relegation, another bonus for Villa fans – has a very young squad at his disposal, a talented one that is not yet in full maturity. Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Chris Herd, Gary Gardner, Samir Carruthers and even Andreas Weimann, Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton could benefit from finding their feet in the professional game at the lower level, rather than learning the hard way in the top flight. Indeed the suspicion is that the only reason several of those players are not on loan outside the Premier League is the paucity of McLeish's squad.
One step back to take two steps forward? It can be painful but it might just be fun. And Villa fans have not had much of that this season.
It's time for that Everton mint. Which probably should be an "everton mint" per the Guardian style guide if yorkshire pudding is anything to go by. And I'm nothing if not a stikler 4 acurracee.
Peep! And that's half-time. A satisfactory 45 minutes for Arsenal, who only got out of first gear for a minute or two. But only needed to.
45+8 min: Nothing is happening but it's not often you get to put "45+8 min" at the start of an MBM entry and I didn't want to miss the opportunity.
45+5 min: "The result notwithstanding, is there anything that Villa can be remotely proud about in this match, or are Arsenal just dominating?" wonders Richie Lauridsen. "When will be able to turn it around, and are things really this bad? It seems like the only stat that we ever end up trumping our opponents in is the number of fouls committed, as possession, shots, and any shred of footballing know-how seem to have escaped our entire squad."
Agbonlahor is putting himself about. That's about it. I'd say Villa are one of 11 teams in a relegation scrap. And the lack of goals is a big, big worry.
45+4 min: … the corner is nodded clear. The loose ball is shovelled back in. It's also nodded clear.
45+3 min: Bacuna robs Cazorla 40 yards from the Arsenal goal, then trundles forward and wins a corner …
45+2 min: "I'm neither an officially qualified coach nor recognised as a statistician by profession but there does seen to be an correlation between the amount of local Mild the Villa players consume, and their success," writes Paul Griffin. "1982: players doubtless dranks lots of Mild: team won the European Cup. 2014: no evidence of mild drinking, no European Cups. Never mind 442 Mr Lambert, how about a crate of malty mild for the home team?" Mmmm, mild.
45+1 min: There will be eight minutes of added time here.
45 min: Özil and Wilshere look to twinkle their way into the box, but Villa's swarming ranks close out the space.
43 min: In an great, swirling ocean of bad news for Villa, here's a little sailboat of good news:
42 min: That two-goal injection has got Arsenal purring. Villa need half-time, but they're not going to get it for a while. There'll be at least six minutes of stoppage time.
40 min: Benteke flops over like a deflating bouncy castle on halfway. No free-kick.
39 min: "If Metal Beard Man hasn't been seen since the opening day, is it possible he got a transfer away?" writes Matt Dony. "Anyone seen a recent squad sheet for Metalist Kharkiv?"
38 min: There were 17 seconds between the restart after the first goal and the second goal. And 59 seconds between the two goals in total.
37 min: That all got pretty bad pretty quickly for the home side.
It's two in less than a minute! Villa concede possession too close to their own goal, the ball is played in to Giroud who takes one velcro-like touch, then gets a bit fortunate as the ball pinballs between his knees, but his third and final touch is a superb finish past Guzan.
I'm halfway through typing "Villa have been much better since the enforced switch to 4-4-2" as Arsenal take the lead. That came out of nowhere really. Monreal overlapped down the left. A simple low pass. A fine touch and finish from Wilshere. And now, hang on …
33 min: Free-kick. Swung in deep. Nodded back. Flag up.
32 min: Nacho Monreal goes into Neil Swarbrick's Big Book Of Very Bad Men, for an ill-timed lunge at Agbonlahor, who was spinning away down the right.
30 min: Mertesacker and Koscielny exchange what feels like several hundred passes on the halfway line. It's like watching a ball richochet between two trees in slow motion.
29 min: … swung in by Cazorla. Punched away very well by Guzan, who was under a fair bit of pressure.
27 min: … referee Swarbrick plays on. And on. And on. Then eventually gives Arsenal a free-kick for a nothing tackle by El Ahmadi on the edge of the box. Dangerous this …
26 min: "You guys can't see the thinning forest for the one thick tree," writes James Ferguson. "It's not the presence of the beard that is startling but rather three shiny hairless noggins in such close proximity. I reckon it's part of a photo shoot for a hair replacement product back in metal crazy Finland." Meanwhile, Flamini hammers into Agbonlahor …
25 min: Agbonlahor almost gets the better of Koscielny as the defender allows a long punt forward to bounce inside the box.
24 min: Arsenal work themselves into a dangerous position, then in retro Arsenal style work themselves back out of it and Santi Cazorla ends up wanging a pass out of play for a throw in.
22 min: Arsenal haven't switched themselves back on after the delay. El Ahmadi ghosts unmolested into the box and volleys wide from Delph's dinked cross.
21 min: So let's see – it's now a back four for Villa with Bacuna wide right and Luna at left-back.
20 min: Nathan Baker is at last carried off on a spine board rather than a stretcher. And on comes Leandro Bacuna.
18 min: Bacuna is going to come on for Baker – will be interesting to see if this changes Villa's shape. But it won't happen for a little while. They're taking their time with Baker and being very careful with him.
16 min: I think Nathan Baker's evening is over. I can't say I've ever seen anything quite like it, it seemed so innocuous. Which just makes it all the more worrying. He's still on the turf. Stretcher on its way.
15 min: Baker's in a bit of discomfort here. It looked to be a glancing blow but he's down on the turf getting treatment for quite a while. Might be a neck problem …
14 min: Another Arsenal corner. This time it's worked out to Gnabry on the edge of the box, but his shot is charged down by Nathan Baker's face.
12 min: Chance for Villa! Ozil and Wilshere get themselves into a pickle not far from the Arsenal box. Benteke nips the ball away and Delph has plenty of time to pick his spot, but drags his shot a yard or two wide from 20 yards.
10 min: Monreal's turn to send in a cross under no pressure whatsoever. Villa really need to sort out responsibility for picking up the Arsenal full-backs when they come forward, because no one is doing it at the moment. Fortunately for the home side, the cross is utter bobbins on this occasion.
9 min: Pass, pass, pass from the visitors …
7 min: Again Sagna is given time and space on the right. This time Vlaar does just enough – clambering desperately into the side of Giroud – to prevent a shot on goal. Luna and co need to sort out the Villa left.
6 min: Zeigeisty US TV series reference alert: "Re: Heavy Metal Gunner," writes Steve Rothfuchs. "Isn't that Opie from Sons of Anarchy?"
4 min: What a chance! Arsenal build down the right, Sagna swings a cross in. Giroud gets between two of the three centre-backs but glances his header wide. Just the sort of chance you expect the Frenchman to take.
3 min: … taken short, then dinked in, but Gnabry's touch is heavier than the music our bearded friend listens to and Villa clear.
2 min: "Must be a Scandiavian thing," writes Andy Brennan. "Oleg Mellberg used to have a similar metal bear." The email continues but that typo is so brilliant I'm stopping it there. Meanwhile, Baker has miscued a clearance and Arsenal have a corner …
1 min: The noise at Villa Park seems mostly to be coming from the away end in the opening exchanges. And to bring an end to the first skirmishes El Ahmadi clatters into Jack Wilshere and gets the first booking of the game. After 68 seconds. Rod, meet the referee's back.
Peep! Villa emerge from a pre-game huddle and then get the game under way.
"Re: Heavy Metal Gunner," writes Julian Menz. "Having lived in Scandinavia, and knowing how popular various forms of Death/Black Metal are in those parts, my guess is that the Gooner Metalhead is in fact Nicklas Bentdner. Silly beard and all."
… they emerge from the tunnel into the majestic Villa Park, one of the great theatres of English football. Arsenal are in yellow. Villa in claret and blue.
I have one Everton Mint left. Now? Save it until half-time? Wait until the 70 minute mark?
"Grim memories indeed from that opening day," begins Pete. "But it has also just reminded me: did anyone get to the bottom of who the rather incongruent looking guy with the 'heavy metal' looking beard on the Arsenal bench was?"
Here he is, beside Arsene Wenger's left elbow:
The Spaniard has a calf injury, which is why he is absent from the squad tonight. Whisper it, but that's perhaps not the end of the world for Arsenal.*
*DISCLAIMER: the writer accepts no liability if Wilshere and Flamini now fail to provide the requisite control in midfield.
Christian Benteke scored twice in Villa's opening day win at the Emirates, but he's only scored twice in the league since. And then there's this:
Here's Paul Lambert: "We're going out to attack. We're going to need a bit of luck, but if we can replicate what we did on the first day of the season we'll give them a good game. The pace that we've got in the side can be a threat."
All of it, in fact:
Aston Villa: Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Baker, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Agbonlahor, Benteke. Subs: Steer, Sylla, Bacuna, Tonev, Helenius, Weimann, Albrighton.
Arsenal: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Wilshere, Flamini; Cazorla, Ozil, Gnabry; Giroud. Subs: Fabianski, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Rosicky, Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ju-Young Park
So Wilshere sits in the deep midfield role, rather than Arteta, who presumably has picked up an injury over the weekend. And it's another chance for young Serge Gnabry to impress Joachim Löw. For Villa the big news is the return of Ron Vlaar, who has made only two starts since November. It looks like it'll be a 5-3-2 for the home side.
"If you are not prepared to pay the price, there is a price to be paid. Arsenal's miserly summer, which finds them in transfer profit, ended in an opening-day loss. Aston Villa were organised, determined, took advantage of a couple of controversial calls by the referee, Anthony Taylor, and inflicted upon Arsenal a defeat that was both damaging and damning.
"There is something to be said about perceptions here. Villa, who have spent modestly this summer, looked a club feeling upwardly mobile – their elated players tossed shirts into a noisy visiting corner on the back of some vibrant counter-attacking. Arsenal were a picture of deflation. The soundtrack as the crowd exited of wanting some money to be spent spoke volumes about how expectations are being undermined by a strategically inept transfer window."
That was Amy Lawrence's view of Arsenal's opening-day defeat to Villa at the Emirates. Amazing to think it was just five months ago. The tables are now completely turned – Arsenal are one of the runners in a three-horse race for the title, while Paul Lambert's Villa "project" (for a "project" is somehow exactly what it feels) is in something approaching dissarray. Since Villa beat Southampton at the beginning of December only Swansea have picked up fewer points in the Premier League, and with the FA Cup exit at the hands of League One Sheffield United their season reached a new low.
But perhaps this is a chance for Villa to rekindle those heady days of August and to breathe new life into their flagging season. More likely, is that it proves to be a stark example of just how far their campaign has unravelled, of just how distant those days of optimism seem. With Manchester City and Chelsea now going through the gears, Arsenal can afford nothing other than a win.