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Mahmoud Trezeguet downs Arsenal to lift Aston Villa out of relegation zone

The cries at full-time, after one last foray from Arsenal was repelled and once Chris Kavanagh had finally blown his whistle, were so loud that for a moment it was tempting to wonder whether any supporters had sneaked inside. Aston Villa, left desolate by Theo Walcott’s equaliser at Goodison Park last Thursday, had moved out of the relegation zone for the first time since late February and nobody could fault the way they took their chance.

Villa had been forced to sit and watch in the hope of an implosion above them for five days and it came courtesy of Watford, whose two demoralising defeats and latest change of manager handed Dean Smith’s team a sniff of a reprieve by the time they kicked off. It was seized upon through near-flawless defending at one end and, at the other, by a forward who has hit form at exactly the right time.

Mahmoud Trezeguet, Villa’s Egyptian winger, has been a mercurial customer throughout his career but scored twice in the win against Crystal Palace in their last home game and was decisive again. Villa had been tentative in the opening stages, perhaps caught between poles given that their task was no longer strictly win or bust. The thought had started to occur that the occasion might pass them by but then, in the 27th minute, Conor Hourihane took a left-sided corner and everything quickly became clear.

Hourihane’s reliably excellent deliveries have been Villa’s main source of openings in recent weeks and this one, whipped in with purpose as usual, was aimed towards the onrushing Tyrone Mings. The defender could not quite make proper contact, although he may have glanced the ball slightly; either way, it reached an unattended Trezeguet a few yards inside the right corner of the box and his half-volley, sliced viciously inside Emiliano Martínez’s near post, was unstoppable.

It was a blistering finish and the biggest credit to Villa is that, against opponents who had been full of joy, they rarely looked in serious danger of diluting its importance. Mings was impeccable at centre-back but it is no exaggeration that, if anything, his partner Ezri Konsa outshone him. In front of them Douglas Luiz showed exactly why he can become one of the division’s leading exponents of the holding midfield position and Villa will hope his former club, Manchester City, are not minded to do what seems obvious and exercise the buyback clause in his contract.

They were never opened up during a first period in which Arsenal, perhaps recalibrating after allowing Manchester City so much possession at Wembley on Sunday, rarely looked confident in making their monopoly of the ball come good. Mikel Arteta’s players did not lack intent but final balls, particularly from the wing-backs Cédric Soares and Bukayo Saka, were off the mark and six changes to the starting lineup appeared to have a destabilising effect. One of those brought in, Lucas Torreira, looked lost throughout the first half; he was booked and, on one occasion, visibly incurred the frustration of David Luiz so it was little surprise that he was replaced by Granit Xhaka at the interval.

Arsenal improved but only caused Villa hearts to leap when, 13 minutes from the end, Eddie Nketiah met a corner from the substitute Nicolas Pépé but glanced his header against the inside of the far post. They created little else, Saka skying a half‑chance over with his right foot early in the second half and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who saw one effort well blocked by Konsa, enduring one of his quietest nights in recent memory. Villa could have sealed it moments before Nketiah’s close shave when Keinan Davis, who had just come on, shot wide after exceptional work from Jack Grealish and any outcome bar the three points would have sold their gimlet-eyed focus well short.

If Villa are to complete the job they might require one more favour from Arsenal, who host Watford on Sunday while they search for the victory at West Ham that would surely make them safe. That may not be straightforward now Arsenal’s top-flight season is over; they can finish no higher than eighth and that is especially galling for Arteta given that, with a win here, a Europa League spot through the Premier League would have looked realistic. Beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final would solve that problem but the nagging concern is that, in producing a stale display that did not bring a shot on target, they have let one ship sail too easily.

An aeroplane was the craft used to express dismay at their status quo in the game’s early moments, the action taking place amid a loud hum as a banner reading “Back Arteta, Kroenke out” was flown above Villa Park. Arteta certainly saw fresh evidence of his team’s shortcomings here; Smith, meanwhile, finally caught a glimpse of blue sky.

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