Arsenal stunned by Aston Villa as Bailey and Watkins hurt title ambitions

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Ollie Watkins;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Ollie Watkins</a> celebrates scoring <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Aston Villa;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Aston Villa</a>’s second goal after 87 minutes.</span><span>Photograph: David Klein/Reuters</span>

If this was the afternoon when ­Arsenal let it all slip then Mikel Arteta will know they have only themselves to blame. His side were handed the perfect opportunity to lay down their title credentials after Liverpool had been surprisingly beaten by Crystal Palace, but instead it was Unai Emery’s Aston Villa who celebrated wildly at the final whistle after late goals from substitute Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins delivered a hammer blow to Arsenal’s chances of ending a 20-year wait to be crowned champions.

It was a victory that will have tasted particularly sweet for Emery, who was sacked by Arsenal in November 2019 after just 18 months in charge but is now a step closer to guiding Villa to Champions League qualification next season. Things could have been even worse for the home supporters – most of whom stayed until the bitter end in hope rather than expectation of a comeback – had Watkins and Youri Tielemans not seen their efforts strike the woodwork either side of half-time.

Related: Arsenal 0-2 Aston Villa: Premier League – live

Arsenal’s young side showed their fallibility this time last season to allow Manchester City to overhaul them and they will fear that those failings have returned at precisely the wrong moment after disastrous defending gifted Bailey the opening goal six minutes from full time, before Watkins rounded things off with his 19th of the season.

Tottenham’s thrashing at Newcastle on Saturday had given Emery’s side even more incentive to get a result against his former employers and they were a considerably more dangerous proposition than the team beaten 4-1 by City 11 days ago, with Watkins thriving in attack. Yet while the visitors were under the cosh for most of the first half as Arsenal pressed forward, they showed resilience and a toothless Arsenal attack led by Gabriel Jesus could not find a way through no matter what they tried.

Arteta had opted to deploy Kai Havertz in central midfield despite the German’s recent run of goals playing up front and had the German made the most of two decent chances that fell his way inside the opening quarter of an hour then the gamble would have paid off handsomely. But he could not quite reach a cross from Bukayo Saka before he fired straight at Arsenal old boy Emiliano Martínez after a brilliant pass from Leandro Trossard. Jesus was next to waste a chance when he headed wide after Saka had picked him out at the far post before the England winger, set up by Martin Ødegaard’s precise through ball, fired into the side netting from a tight angle.

Oleksandr Zinchenko had plenty to thank Trossard for when the Belgian forward made a crucial intervention on the edge of Arsenal’s box to deny Watkins after a quick break with the left-back nowhere to be seen. Zinchenko then tried a speculative effort from just inside Villa’s half after intercepting Martínez’s weak goal kick but it never really looked like beating the Argentina goalkeeper. It seemed inevitable that Arsenal would find a breakthrough but Diego Carlos was able to outmuscle Havertz after another lung-busting run through the middle of Villa’s defence.

But in a hint of what was to follow, they were lucky to escape after a ­wayward pass from Gabriel Magalhães struck the unsuspecting Zinchenko on the back but Watkins saw his effort cannon back off the post and away to safety. Less than 30 seconds later Martínez incredibly managed to turn away Trossard’s shot on the goalline after he was set up by Jesus in a breathless end to the first half in which the hosts mustered 14 shots but could not find the breakthrough they desperately yearned for.

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To Villa’s credit, they had managed to frustrate Arsenal for large periods by keeping the ball and that pattern continued in the second half. Jesus went to ground claiming an unlikely penalty after tangling with Diego ­Carlos when he could have attempted a shot instead and the referee, David Coote, waved away his appeals.

As Emery lived and breathed every moment on the touchline, Arteta cut a frustrated figure with his side struggling to recapture their rhythm after the break and the anxiety of the home supporters began to rise. Sensing that it just might be their day, Villa’s travelling fans found their voices when their side won a corner just after the hour mark and Tielemans saw his brilliant effort smack off the crossbar and on to a post after dispossessing the ponderous Zinchenko on the edge of his own area.

Martínez was then on hand to deny Jesus with a curling shot from a rapid Arsenal break downfield as Arteta turned to Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe off the bench. But as time ticked on, if anything it seemed more likely that Villa would find the crucial goal and so it proved.

No one seemed to have noticed Bailey lurking at the far post as Lucas Digne’s cross dribbled across the area. But after eluding Gabriel, William Saliba decided just to leave it alone and the Jamaican gratefully gobbled up the chance. Watkins put the final nail in Arsenal’s coffin with a dinked finish deflected into the top corner late on to send Emery and the Villa supporters into dreamland and leave Arsenal’s expecting the worst.