There is always a debate about whether one man makes a team. Steven Gerrard has often been afforded that status at Liverpool and, yesterday, Cesc Fabregas once again proved Arsenal are simply not the same force without him. When he came on in the 57th minute, the Emirates erupted. Their prodigal son was back at his, inspirational and imperious best. He transformed a goalless stalemate into a crucial victory for the Gunners with a 27-minute cameo of class capped by two goals of outstanding quality.
The first came in the 65th minute when Fabregas was fouled by Richard Dunne for a free kick 25 yards out. Up he stepped and curled the ball into the corner. Number two, in the 81st minute, was different, but just as delightful. Armand Traore spotted and picked out Theo Walcott's break on the right with a superb long ball. Fabregas kept pace with the flying winger, collected his pass and finished past Brad Friedel with venom.
His hamstring injury seemed to flare up in the process and having played his part to perfection, he was replaced six minutes from time to a standing ovation. Teammate Thomas Vermaelen said: "Cesc was great. He had an injury and he did everything to make this game. He's a fantastic player." Abou Diaby's fine curling finish just before the end handed Villa their worst defeat of the season and showed they still have work to do in their own pursuit of a Champions League place.
Not since the 1994/95 season has a team beaten each of the big four. Leeds were the last to do so. Villa had shown respect, but no fear against Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United, who they stunned at Old Trafford. But Arsenal proved a hurdle too far. Just like last season's Boxing Day meeting when they went 2-0 up in a 2-2 draw, they started impressively. Their swift, incisive passing penetrated the Villa backline and Eduardo should have done better with a chance as early as the fourth minute.
Diaby found him in the box and a clever turn by the Croatia international deceived Carlos Cuellar and gave him a clear sight of goal. The finish did not match the build-up as the shot was weak and straight at Friedel. Arsene Wenger was apoplectic on the sidelines. Having scored his first goal in 11 games against Hull last week, Eduardo wanted to prove he could be more than a deputy for the injured Robin van Persie. But there was a lack of conviction in the forward's play and a reluctance to shoot with his right foot when another opportunity followed. That, though, summed up Arsenal: lots of jabs, but they lacked the knockout punch.
A similar moment followed when Eduardo set up Denilson in space on the edge of the box, but he strangely chose to pass to Samir Nasri a few feet to his right. The Frenchman did well to conjure up a volley that was deflected just over. It gave Villa hope, but their counter-attacking policy and the speed of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor was not utilised enough. Young's shot, which looped off Alex Song, was a rare moment of alarm for Manuel Almunia.
Arsenal dominated possession and Cuellar was handily placed to clear off the line when William Gallas hooked the ball goalwards in the 57th minute. The Spanish defender then did the same to deny Fabregas before his fellow countryman took centre stage. He set up Andrey Arshavin for a low effort that Friedel did well to keep out with a strong right hand. Then came the Fabregas one-two and Villa surrendered tamely.