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Saka sends Arsenal closer to Champions League return

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Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was thrilled with a “very big win” as Bukayo Saka’s strike saw off Aston Villa 1-0 yesterday to open up a four-point gap in fourth place in the Premier League.

The Gunners could increase that margin further with a game in hand over fifth-placed Manchester United (50) and were well worthy of the three points against a toothless Villa at Villa Park, despite the narrow scoreline.

“It’s a very big win for us. I thought we played fantastically well, but we didn’t put the game to bed when we had the chances. But we showed the resilience to win,” Arteta said on BBC Sport.

“Villa are a very good team and to come here is always extremely difficult. We managed to do the things we wanted to do in the match and I think we deserved to win the game.

“There’s still 10 games to go and you can see how small the margins are. The key is that we are there (in the top four) and that we believe we can do it.”

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The Spaniard had complained about the tight turnaround his side faced after Wednesday’s 2-0 home loss to Liverpool, which ended a five-game winning run. 

But he would have been pleased there was no sign of tiredness from his players in the early stages.

Martin Odegaard and Thomas Partey dominated the midfield and a nice move between the two deserved a better finish from the latter as he fired straight at Emiliano Martinez.

The former Arsenal goalkeeper then denied his old club the opener with a stunning save low to his left to prevent Ezri Konsa turning the ball into his own net from Saka’s dangerous cross.

Saka was a constant threat and fittingly got the only goal on 30 minutes when Villa failed to clear a free kick and he fired low past Martinez from the edge of the box.

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Arsenal’s fine, flowing first-half football deserved more than just Saka’s goal – the Gunners’ 2,000th Premier League strike. 

But the England forward was, nonetheless, happy with his ninth league goal of the season.

“It’s very, very, very satisfying. I thought we created a lot. We started very well,” he told the BBC.

“The early goal helped us get into the game, but we need to start finishing games to prevent things from getting too nervy…

“The top four is definitely possible.”

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Arsenal players surrounded referee Andy Madley moments later begging for a red card after Tyrone Mings caught Saka, but the Villa defender got away with a booking.

Villa, who did not have a single shot, on or off target, in the first half, improved after the break but lacked the creativity to break Arsenal down as Philippe Coutinho failed to hit the heights of his best form since joining on loan from Barcelona.

Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno, deputising for the injured Aaron Ramsdale, was not forced into a save until the final kick of the game when he parried Coutinho’s free kick to safety and was mobbed by his teammates at full-time. 

The Gunners did not hold back celebrating a big three points in their quest to end a five-year exile from the Champions League.

A second straight loss for Villa means they stay ninth.

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“We were indecisive in the things we tried to do. I think our performance lacked belief,” said manager Steven Gerrard. 

“It wasn’t until after half-time that we showed we can be better.

“We deserved to be behind in the first half. We set up to be aggressive but lacked belief in what we were doing. I’m emotional.”

-Reuters/AFP

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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