BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom, Dec 13, (AFP): Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey scored as Arsenal capped a memorable week by climbing to the Premier League summit with a 2-0 victory over ailing Aston Villa on Sunday.
After completing a remarkable turnaround in their Champions League fortunes to qualify once again for the knockout stages, Arsene Wenger’s side moved above Manchester City and Leicester City in the domestic title race by getting the better of the bottom-of-the-table side at Villa Park.
Giroud, hat-trick hero of the triumph over Olympiakos that secured their Champions League passage, set them on their way with a penalty, his 50th Premier League goal, before Ramsey added a second by starting and finishing a swift counter-attack.
Those first-half goals were enough to give Wenger victory over a Villa side managed by fellow Frenchman Remi Garde, who was the first player he signed as Arsenal manager.
It was a further blow to Garde’s faint hopes of masterminding a great escape for the West Midlands club, who are well adrift at the bottom of the table and have now gone a club-record 15 matches without a win since an opening-day triumph at Bournemouth.
Giroud’s opener, calmly stroked home from the penalty spot in the eighth minute, was his 11th goal in 13 games and 16th of the season.
Villa could ill afford to hand the Gunners an early impetus, but that was exactly what they did when Alan Hutton used both hands to haul back Theo Walcott.
Referee Kevin Friend took a few seconds of deliberation before eventually pointing to the spot and Giroud duly obliged by sending Brad Guzan the wrong way from the spot.
Giroud went close to giving Arsenal the comfort of a two-goal cushion when he flicked Mesut Ozil’s free-kick beyond the advancing Guzan, but Rudy Gestede came to Villa’s rescue with a last-ditch clearance.
There was some encouragement for Villa when Petr Cech flapped at a deep cross from Hutton when under pressure from Gestede, but although the ball dropped kindly for Jordan Veretout on the edge of the box, he snatched at the chance and it flew well wide.
Arsenal were looking threatening every time they ventured into Villa territory and both Laurent Koscielny and Joel Campbell were only inches away from getting on the end of menacing crosses as the home side’s defence struggled to contain the visitors.
It was little surprise when they got their reward with a breakaway goal seven minutes before the break that was started and finished by Ramsey.
The Welshman won a decisive tackle to dispossess Idrissa Gueye deep in his own half and started a move that continued with Walcott releasing Ozil.
Although the German star had a clear path to goal himself, he unselfishly squared the ball for Ramsey to claim his reward for his determination and energy by steering it into an empty net.
Villa gave their long-suffering fans some cause for hope at the start of the second half, but when a comedy of errors presented Gestede with a good chance, he slipped at the crucial moment and spared Cech’s blushes.
They then created an excellent chance to pull a goal back when Hutton delivered a cross from the right and Scott Sinclair’s header went fractionally over.
With Arsenal struggling to match their first-half showing, Wenger opted to introduce fresh legs in the shape of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs.
As the Gunners took the sting out of Villa’s attempted fightback, Oxlade-Chamberlain went close to adding a third when he burst to the edge of the box and unleashed a low shot that was deflected wide of Guzan’s left-hand post.