| Aston Villas James Milner (centre) in a tussle with Arsenals Manuel Almunia and Gael Clichy during their Premier League match at Villa Park on Friday. (AP) |
Zat Knight was once valued at 30 tracksuits but last night the defender struck a goal that could be worth £30 million. If Knight and his enterprising Aston Villa colleagues hold off Arsenal in the race for the fourth place in the Champions League then his late, great equaliser in this marvellous match could prove decisive and very lucrative.
Knights strange transfer fee occurred when moving from non-League Rushall Olympic to Fulham nine years ago, and his subsequent £3.5 million switch to Villa hardly appeared a material success until Friday. Understudying for the injured Martin Laursen, Knight is not deemed consistent enough to be a regular, but there was something rather appropriate about this die-hard Villa fan scoring in front of a jubilant Holte End, as reported in Saturdays Late City edition.
The goal embodied all the enthusiasm that Martin Neill has instilled in Villa. One of nine Englishmen who started, Knight seized the moment brilliantly, showing remarkable dexterity for a centre-half in controlling the ball with his right foot before ramming it left-footed past Manuel Almunia.
They clung to the ropes, knocked senseless by high-speed combinations. If anyone had a right to denounce Lady Luck it was Neill, when Arsenal struck through Denilson and Abou Diaby either side of half-time after his own team had three times struck only wood. A Gareth Barry penalty and Knights mighty leveller were the very least Villa deserved.
These are troubled times for Arsenal. Uncertainty stalks the boardroom and the dressing room increasingly resembles an Agatha Christie film with stars continually disappearing. Johan Djourou, during the kick-in, and Alex Song, during the game, limped away with calf injuries.
Although Arsenals goals came from two centrally-based players, they badly miss Cesc Fabregas creativity and a proper midfield ball-winner. Wenger could do worse than see if West Hams projected January fire-sale involves Scott Parker being made available. What he lacks in pace Parker makes up for in experience, tackling and determination. Arsenal need a rugged presence as they currently exude vulnerability.
Villa sensed this weakness and tore into the visitors, Gabby Agbonlahor leading the charge, muscling his way into William Gallas and Djourous replacement, Kolo Toure. Arsenal were rattled, and so was their crossbar after five minutes by a Steve Sidwell header.
Arsenals goalmouth was under siege, the backline lent insufficient protection by midfield. Emmanuel Eboue, starting in right midfield, had doubtless been told to keep an eye on Young, and he did: Luke Young rather than the far more menacing Ashley Young. Bacary Sagna had to deal with Ashley Young on his own and the French full-back was terrific throughout, making a series of blocks and clearances.
But Sagna and company had to weather a huge storm. Agbonlahor tested the reflexes of Almunia, who then pushed a James Milner shot on to the post. The framework of Arsenals goal continued to thwart Villa, Curtis Davies hooking a superb volley on to the bar.
The claret-and-blue adrenalin rush coursing towards Almunia was partly driven by a desire to make Wenger pay for injudicious pre-match comments, notably his statement that Villa had no chance of winning the title. True but still impolitic.
Breaking off from their taunting of Wenger, the Villa fans found time to castigate Eboue, a known irritant with an apparent tendency to fall over when challenged verbally, let alone physically. But a sense of defiance remains part of Arsenals DNA, particularly against the better teams, and Eboue was involved in a goal that was so outrageously against the run of play it was almost actionable.
The goal was also laced with controversy. Villa were livid that Lee Mason did not award them a free-kick for an apparent body-check by Alex Song on Agbonlahor. Yet Mason was perfectly entitled to wave play on as Agbonlahor ran into Song. Arsenal, meanwhile, ran upfield, Song placing the ball inside to Denilson, who exchanged passes with Eboue before shooting under Brad Friedel.
Neill was enraged, grabbing a water bottle and threatening to dismantle it before eventually deciding to show it some mercy. His frustration mounted when Sagna executed one of the most amazingly athletic clearances of the season, an overhead kick to prevent Agbonlahors header crossing the line.
The tension spilled over, Wenger and Neill railing against each other. The officials separated the managers but, when Knight rode to Villas rescue, nothing could separate the teams. Yet Neill will take most heart from the draw, keeping his ambitious side in fourth place. Wenger has some thinking — and some shopping — to do.