London – Santi Cazorla eased the pressure on under-fire Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger as the Spanish midfielder's double clinched a crucial 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Saturday.
Wenger had faced renewed calls for his resignation after last weekend's embarrassing FA Cup exit against second-tier Blackburn and the midweek Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich only added to the impression of a club spiralling out of control.
In the circumstances anything but a victory against struggling Villa would have given Wenger's critics more ammunition to attack the Frenchman, so there was a sense of relief all around the Emirates Stadium when Cazorla bagged the winner with five minutes remaining.
Until then Arsenal had laboured to kill off third bottom Villa, who recovered from Cazorla's first half opener to equalise through Andreas Weimann after the break.
Cazorla's efforts moved Arsenal within one point of fourth placed Tottenham, although their north London rivals can reopen a four-point advantage if they beat West Ham on Monday.
Arsenal certainly started as if they had a point to prove. Within minutes of kick-off, Jack Wilshere forcefully got on the end of a misplaced Joe Bennett pass to bring a fine save from Brad Guzan.
Only moments later, in the sixth minute, Wenger's men took the lead when Cazorla had a shot blocked and then immediately collected the loose ball and guided his shot around Guzan.
It capped an assured, defiant start, but it didn't solve all of their problems.
Villa looked to capitalise on Arsenal left-back Nacho Monreal's frequent forays forward. The Spaniard was often superb when contributing to attack but lacked a little defensively.
It was through his flank that Villa created a series of chances for Gabriel Agbonlahor and Charles N'Zogbia, with Wojciech Szczesny forced into two excellent stops.
The lively Weimann was also unlucky when a particularly impressive quick interchange with N'Zogbia ended with his run being forced wide.
At the other end, Arsenal did put together some nice passages of play themselves but too often a crucial touch was slightly off or a pass underhit.
After half-time they were in complete command for a period. Reflecting that more than anyone, Olivier Giroud grew into the match and was an increasingly assertive presence.
He was also unlucky not to score when a glancing header bounced just wide of the post.
Just when it seemed another Arsenal goal was on its way, Villa equalised against the run of play in the 68th minute with a strike that exposed all of the Gunners' defensive flaws.
A long punt upfield ended up at the feet of Weimann and, with the Arsenal defence backing off, he fired the ball through Szczesny's weak attempted save.
That could have shattered Arsenal's fragile morale but to their credit the hosts hit back.
Guzan touched another Giroud header over the bar from point-blank range and Cazorla then provided the sting in the tale.
Wilshere picked out Monreal and the defender pulled the ball back for Cazorla to stroke home a goal that Wenger will hope lifts the gloom enveloping his club. – Sapa-AFP