Classic match: Arsenal 5 Aston Villa 0 (3 April 1991)

Arsenal 5 Aston Villa 0 1991

By the time Aston Villa visited Highbury over the Easter break in 1991, Arsenal had recovered from the disappointment of their only league defeat of the season, to Chelsea, in February.

Unbeaten since the defeat at Stamford Bridge, in a run which included progressing to the FA Cup semi-final, there was increasing talk of a possible league and cup double.
Arsenal’s good run had been helped by Alan Smith's return to goal-scoring form, and the emergence of Kevin Campbell. There had been excitement around this young prospect for quite some time - it was Campbell’s rapid development and potential that led to the club’s decision to let Andrew Cole leave the club. Weighing up the relative strengths of Cole and Campbell, George Graham and his coaching staff decided there was only room for one young buck, and Campbell got the nod.

As Arsenal closed in on a second title in three years, no-one was questioning the wisdom of this decision. Campbell was scintillating - an intoxicating mix of skill and power who emerged at exactly the right time to give Arsenal’s challenge a youthful boost. Campbell was the ‘Barclay’s Young Eagle of the month’ for March. “It was quite easy to nominate the March winner … Kevin Campbell by a street,” said England Manager Graham Taylor. Another judge, Ron Greenwood, observed: “His control and power when attacking defenders is quite awesome.”

As the Villa match approached, the destiny of the title seemed to tip in Arsenal’s favour. Arsenal beat Derby 2-0 at the Baseball Ground in a routine win, although they came away slightly disappointed at the margin of victory. Derby were all over the place, heading for relegation and mired in controversy surrounding their owner, Robert Maxwell. Arsenal’s title rivals, Liverpool, had come away from Derby with a 7-1 win the previous week. Arsenal (and Liverpool) were of course no strangers to the potential importance of goal difference, considering the way the season ended two years earlier.

It was something of a surprise then, when Liverpool followed up that hammering of Derby with consecutive defeats to QPR and Southampton. By the time Arsenal hosted Aston Villa, the Gunners were two points ahead of Liverpool at the top of the table, with the chance to make it five.

This background, and the fact the game was being televised (when these things mattered), combined to create a fantastic pre-match atmosphere, with a real sense of excitement and anticipation under the Highbury floodlights. Even the Prime Minister, John Major (a Chelsea fan), was there for some reason (the TV cameras perhaps?)

Arsenal attacked Villa from the start, with Campbell and Anders Limpar in particular taking it in turns to run at the Villa defence. However, Villa created good chances too, and the game was finely balanced - until Limpar, faced with three Villa defenders, slotted a perfect pass between them to Campbell, who cut in from the left and beat Nigel Spink with a confident finish.

In the second half, Arsenal really turned on the style and put in a dynamic attacking performance to remember. Three goals in six minutes blew Villa away. The first of these was one of the goals of the season. Nigel Winterburn won a typically tigerish tackle, and drove a cross into the area from the left. There was nothing typical about what happened next though. The ball arrived at pace to Paul Davis, with his back to goal. His first touch brought the ball under control but on to his weaker right foot. Davis was not a prolific scorer, but you wouldn't have known that from his next touch - an instinctive, hooked volley, which went in off the post and gave Spink no chance at all.

Moments later, Paul Merson's deep right-wing cross was headed over Spink by Alan Smith, and, although cleared by a defender, was ruled to have crossed the line - the fourth time this had happened in Arsenal's favour that season. Smith soon struck again. Paul Merson crossed from the right with the outside of his boot and found Limpar at the far post. His low volley back into the box was turned home by Smith.
David Seaman, who at this point could have been forgiven for relaxing and watching the attacking masterclass in front of him, was suddenly required to make an outstanding save. Following a deflected Steve Stone cross, Seaman somehow turned the ball away, despite already moving in the wrong direction. The save was so good he was congratulated by both Arsenal and Villa players.

A short time later, Nigel Spink, Aston Villa’s goalkeeper was less fortunate. Kevin Campbell raced on to a poor Villa back pass, and collided with Spink. The Villa keeper came off worse, and had to be stretchered off the pitch. This was 1991, before the time of substitute goal keepers, and David Platt stepped up to take the keeper’s jersey. It took the Villa backroom team a while to come up with a keeper’s shirt however, so for a short while, Platt donned an Arsenal shirt, four years before he became an Arsenal player.

Given there were still 15 minutes of the match to play, and with the Highbury crowd roaring Arsenal on in pursuit of more goals, Platt and Villa would probably have settled for just the one extra goal conceded. Merson put Campbell through to put the gloss on both the scoreline and a wonderful night for Arsenal. The double proved a step too far for Arsenal, who were beaten by Spurs in the semi-final, but they recovered to seal the championship, with a couple of games to spare.

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