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Emery’s side make it 15 home wins in a row to knock Gunners off their perch

By Sami Mokbel AT VILLA PARK

UNAI EMERY will have you believe Aston Villa are not Champions League contenders. Don’t believe a word of it.

What a team the Spaniard is assembling here. They had beaten Manchester City and Tottenham. Now add Arsenal to that list.

It was after their victory at Spurs that Emery asserted there were seven sides more capable of securing a top-four finish this season.

Not on this evidence, no chance. Villa are the real deal, simple as that, this victory sending them to within one point of the Gunners, who occupy second.

This is a fine Villa team who are displaying all the elements required to succeed.

They blew Arsenal away with an attacking potency the Gunners could not handle in the first half.

In the second, with their backs against the wall, they stood tall.

Arsenal could not find an answer. All manager Mikel Arteta could do was watch from the stand as he served a touchline ban for accumulating three yellow cards, his most recent for excessively celebrating

Declan Rice’s last-gasp winner against Luton on Wednesday.

Arsenal will come again, of course. They are too good not to.

But they have lost their place at the Premier League summit to Liverpool and that will be painful for the next 48 hours or so.

This was Emery’s night after a titanic struggle that left even the spectators shattered. It was thrilling from start to finish and tense throughout. But as the dust cleared, it was those in claret and blue who were holding their arms aloft. Emery, his face distorted with sheer joy, raised his arms in victory at the full-time whistle.

This was sweet for him, of course. The Spaniard will largely be remembered for having failed at Arsenal during his short postArsene Wenger reign.

But his stock could not be higher right now. He has transformed Villa into a terrifying outfit and made his point emphatically here last night.

Villa’s start was stunning. On seven minutes, Leon Bailey scorched through Arsenal’s lefthand side, leaving defender Gabriel Magalhaes in his wake, before cutting the ball back to John McGinn, who steadied himself and fired past David Raya.

The finish was coolness personified, calm and collected from the

Villa captain. There was nothing serene about the celebrations though, which were frenzied.

This was further tangible proof that Villa, under Emery, can hang with the elite and was nothing more than they deserved. Their start was bright and inventive.

When you watch Villa, Emery’s work with his players at their Bodymoor Heath training ground smacks you square in the face.

There is the pace of Ollie Watkins, the power of Douglas Luiz and the invention of Youri Tielemans, but all within a framework and pattern that Emery has honed and shaped.

That said, there were a couple of occasions when their devotion to passing it out from the back nearly got them into trouble.

Bukayo Saka missed a good opportunity in the 32nd minute before Martin Odegaard grazed the side-netting shortly after Villa had lost possession in defence. Credit to the Gunners. They were not at their fluent best in the opening 45 minutes but kept going.

By the 35th minute they had gained a semblance of control and Diego Carlos had to clear his lines with the ball bouncing towards goal after Gabriel Martinelli lofted it over Emi Martinez, before Odegaard squandered a glorious chance. Martinez then denied Gabriel Jesus in the 42nd minute as Arsenal

drove forward in search of a leveller before half-time.

Arsenal’s potency was burgeoning with every foray forward and Martinelli should have supplied a better pass after breaking the offside trap in first-half stoppage time.

The half-time whistle could not have arrived at a better time for Villa. After their excellent start, they needed to regroup.

But Arsenal, ominously, were building a head of steam. Their start to the second period was in similar fashion.

Martinelli, again, was wasteful in a dangerous area before Saka miskicked inside the box. Villa then survived a VAR penalty check after a Douglas Luiz challenge on Jesus.

All this inside the first five minutes after the restart!

The intensity from Villa’s firsthalf showing had disappeared. They were casual all of a sudden.

Emery, who replaced Bailey with Moussa Diaby at half-time, tweaked his tactics again in the 56th minute, bringing on Jacob Ramsey in place of

Tielemans in search of greater control. Yet the wave of Arsenal attacks continued.

Odegaard squandered another opportunity in the 58th minute after the ball was put on a plate for him by Kai Havertz, before Saka saw his effort, after rounding Martinez, ruled out for offside.

Arsenal were throwing caution to the wind and that signalled, on occasion, opportunities for Villa to exploit, Diaby’s pace leading to good opportunities for Lucas Digne and Watkins.

Inevitably Declan Rice was the heartbeat of Arsenal’s pursuit of an equaliser, cajoling his colleagues at every opportunity, driving them forward with that lengthy stride.

But Villa were not for moving, although they survived a late scare when Havertz bundled the ball home at the back post in the 90th minute.

Referee Jarred Gillett ruled it out and VAR backed him, deciding that the Germany international handled in a tangle with Matty Cash, who defended like his life depended on it.

Eddie Nketiah missed Arsenal’s last opportunity deep into stoppage time with a poorly executed header. But there was nothing that was poorly executed about this epic Villa performance.

ASTON VILLA (4-4-1-1): Martinez 7; Konsa 7 (Cash 67min, 6), Carlos 8, Torres 8, Digne 7 (Moreno 78); Bailey 7 (Diaby 46, 7), Kamara 6.5 (Dendoncker 67, 6), Luiz 8.5, McGinn 8; Tielemans 7.5 (Ramsey 56, 7); Watkins 7. Booked: Carlos, Digne, Luiz, McGinn.

(not used): Cash, Moreno, Lenglet, Diaby, Zaniolo, Duran, Dendoncker, Ramsey, Marschall.

ARSENAL (4-3-3): Raya 6; White 6.5, Saliba 7, Magalhaes 6, Zinchenko 6.5 (Nelson 90); Odegaard 6, Rice 7, Havertz 6.5; Saka 6, Jesus 6 (Nketiah 82), Martinelli 5.5 (Trossard 70).

Zinchenko, Rice. Subs (not used): Ramsdale, Nketiah, Kiwior, Cedric, Trossard, Jorginho, Nelson, Elneny, Walters.

Referee: J Gillett (Australia) 6.5.

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