LONDON: Arsenal jumped back to the top of the Premiership on Sunday but their beaten opponents Aston Villa claimed that neither of their goals was valid.
Thierry Henry scored twice in Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Villa Park that saw Arsene Wenger’s men take a two-point lead over Manchester United, who crashed to the surprise defeat of the season at struggling Wolves on Saturday.
Both of Henry’s goals angered Villa. His first, in the 29th minute, came after referee Mark Halsey allowed him to take a quick free-kick as the Villa defensive wall was still lining up.
And Villa were unhappy with the penalty Halsey awarded in the 53rd minute when Olof Mellberg halted Nigeria striker Nwankwo Kanu, in his last match before departing to the African Nations Cup, in the box.
Henry beat Villa’s German keeper Thomas Sorensen from the spot.
Villa boss David O’Leary branded the free-kick a “joke decision” and added: “The two decisions have cost us. It just wasn’t a penalty.”
Reflecting on Arsenal’s first goal, O’Leary said: “In my opinion it was a joke decision. He (Halsey) was standing on the ball ... We did what the referee told us. He’s told my players to go back and wait for the whistle.”
The referee, however, said he had not spoken to Villa players at the crucial moment.
“After the free-kick was given to Arsenal I said to Thierry Henry did he want a quick free-kick or (the Villa players moved back) 10 yards. He said he wanted to take a quick free-kick. I made a signal and moved back.
“In law, I’m under no obligation to inform the Aston Villa players or blow my whistle at a free-kick.”
Even Wenger admitted there was a problem with the free-kick regulations. “At the moment the rules are not clear,” the Frenchman said.
Arsenal’s win left them two points clear of their title rivals and extended their unbeaten league record to 24 games.
But, having been caught out last season in saying Arsenal could go through a whole campaign unbeaten, Wenger was coy about the Gunners’ chances this time of maintaining their league run. “It’s been a great weekend ... It’s phenomenal what the players have achieved so far but there is a still a long way to go.”
Third-placed Chelsea’s title challenge suffered a setback on Sunday when an outstanding display from Birmingham goalkeeper Maik Taylor kept their strikers at bay and the match finished goalless.
So instead of fully capitalising on United’s defeat, Chelsea moved to six points behind the Gunners and four shy of second-placed United.
Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri admitted it had been a hard match for his expensively assembled side.
“It was very difficult for us because Birmingham press us everywhere,” he said. “We had two or three great chances to score but today wasn’t our day.”
Midfielder Joe Cole came closest to breaking the deadlock for Chelsea in the first half. After 31 minutes Cole deceived Olivier Tebily with a dip of the shoulder before unleashing a curling shot that struck the far post with Taylor beaten.
In the 49th minute, Chelsea came within inches of opening the scoring. Taylor, coming through a crowd of bodies, could only punch a cross weakly to William Gallas and his lob, with the goalkeeper way out of position, was about to go in when Tebily athletically cleared off the line.
In the 57th minute Taylor produced a fine save to deny Frank Lampard, the keeper getting down smartly at his left post to block Lampard’s low, powerful shot.
Taylor kept Birmingham in the game with a series of saves and in the 84th minute rushed off his line to block Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s strike with his legs. – AFP