Birmingham (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Arsenal took another big step towards ending a five-year exile from the Champions League as Bukayo Saka’s strike beat Aston Villa 1-0 to open up a four-point lead in fourth in the Premier League.
The Gunners could even increase that gap with a game in hand over fifth-placed Manchester United and were well worthy of the three points against a toothless Villa despite the narrow scoreline.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta had complained about the tight turnaround his side faced after Wednesday’s 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool.
That defeat ended a five-game winning run and there was no sign of tiredness from the visitors in the early stages.
Emile Smith Rowe returned to the starting line-up as one of two changes as Gabriel Martinelli and Aaron Ramsdale missed out through illness and injury respectively.
Smith Rowe had the first chance inside the three minutes when he fired over from Martin Odegaard’s pass.
Odegaard and Thomas Partey were dominating the midfield and a nice move between the two deserved a better finish from the Ghanian as he fired straight at Emiliano Martinez.
The former Arsenal goalkeeper then denied his former club the opening goal with a stunning save low to his left to prevent Ezri Konsa turning into his own net from Saka’s dangerous cross.
Saka was a constant threat and fittingly got the only goal on 30 minutes when Villa failed to clear a free-kick and he fired low past Martinez from the edge of the area.
Arsenal players surrounded referee Andy Madley moments later begging for a red card after Tyrone Mings caught Saka, but the England international got away with just a booking.
Villa improved after the break but lacked the creativity to break Arsenal down as Philippe Coutinho failed to hit the heights of his best form since joining on loan from Barcelona.
John McGinn curled a shot just wide and Ollie Watkins’ deflected effort came back off the outside of the post with Villa’s best chances to snatch an equaliser.
Ramsdale’s absence meant Bernd Leno was making his first Premier League appearance since August.
The German was not forced into a save until the final kick of the game when he parried Coutinho’s free-kick to safety and was mobbed by his teammates at full-time as Arsenal celebrated a big three points in their quest to get back to European football’s elite competition.
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