ASTON VILLA 0, ARSENAL 2
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger backed Olivier Giroud to keep confounding his critics after the striker capped a fine week by firing the Gunners to the top of the Premier League.
Giroud’s first-half penalty and a breakaway second by midfielder Aaron Ramsey saw Wenger’s men overtake Manchester City and Leicester – until tonight, at least – with victory over basement club Aston Villa.
The Frenchman answered doubts over his big-game temperament with a hat-trick on Wednesday at Olympiacos and Sunday's all-round display drew praise from previous detractor Thierry Henry.
“I believe he is at the top of his game and he is questioned sometimes,” Wenger said of Giroud, who netted his 50th goal in England’s top flight.
“Finally, the numbers get people to realise he is a good player. He has improved, his link play is better and when we have the option for a long ball he is a very interesting option.”
Wenger said the 29-year-old did not get enough credit “because he does not have electric pace”, adding: “He is more of a player who plays with his back to goal and brings other people in, so maybe he is spectacular individually with his runs without the ball. He is very efficient and a very important player for the team. He is also mentally very strong.”
Arsenal record scorer-turned-pundit Henry, who last season stated they would not win the league with Giroud as their main striker, said the frontman was “flying” and should have been man of the match.
That accolade went to Ramsey, whose 38th-minute goal typified an all-action display that helped to inspire the Gunners record their first back-to-back wins since October.
Leicester will return to the summit if they beat faltering champions Chelsea at the King Power Stadium this evening, but either way Arsenal will take a slender lead into next Monday’s clash with title rivals City.
Villa look chained to the other end of the table, and there looked scant hope of them easing their crisis when full-back Alan Hutton hauled down forward Theo Walcott after just seven minutes.
Referee Kevin Friend initially hesitated to award the penalty but once he did there was little reticence from Giroud in sending goalkeeper Brad Guzan the wrong way.
Ramsey started the move that led to his clincher with a tackle on Idrissa Gueye deep in his own half and darted 70 yards to finish it after Walcott had released Mesut Ozil and the Germany playmaker – recording his 13th league assist of the season – unselfishly squared.
Villa, managed by former Arsenal midfielder and Wenger protege Remi Garde, rallied after the interval but Scott Sinclair wasted the best chance to deny Petr Cech a top-flight record-equalling 169th clean sheet when he headed over Hutton’s cross unchallenged from six yards.