Arsenal in cruise control to make it seven in a row

Premier League: Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0

Arsenal cruised to a seventh consecutive Premier League victory that has given them genuine breathing space in the battle for Champions League places.

First-half goals from Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott put the Gunners in control of a game they never looked like losing, and a brilliant Mikel Arteta free-kick in added time at the end put the gloss on another fine day for Arsene Wenger’s side.

Chelsea and Spurs failing to spark and drawing the early game at Stamford Bridge had suited Arsenal perfectly

Third place has been a distant dream for most of this season, but when Arsenal fans glance through their Sunday papers they will see their team comfortably in it, three points ahead of Spurs and a hefty eight now in front of Chelsea in fifth.

That was a barely imaginable scenario less than a month ago, when Tottenham headed to the Emirates with a 10-point lead that looked impregnable. A 13-point swing in just five games shows just how quickly things can change.

While the goalless scoreline from the early kick-off at Stamford Bridge was most welcome, Arsenal received a blow before kick-off with the news that Laurent Koscielny had aggravated a knee problem in the warm-up and had to pull out, with Johan Djourou taking the Frenchman’s place in the centre of defence.

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Wenger made one other change, Gervinho coming in for Aaron Ramsey on the left side of midfield following his decent late cameo at Goodison Park on Wednesday night.

Djourou was in the action early, but not in the way he would have wanted as he was caught flush on the nose by a stray elbow from Emile Heskey and needed lengthy treatment.

Mark Albrighton ran fully 70 yards before blazing over on the counter- attack, but after that it was all Arsenal. Theo Walcott had a sight of goal after a delightful Van Persie backheel but saw his effort blocked, before Bacary Sagna skied another presentable chance reasonably wide.

Moments later his fellow full-back showed him how to do it, although there were huge amounts of fotune attached to Kieran Gibbs’s 15th-minute opener.

Played in by Gervinho, the Gunners’ left-back’s low cross-shot should have been easy for Shay Given, but the Irish keeper, so often unbeatable against Arsenal over the years, succeeded merely in diverting it into the net.

Villa looked crestfallen and you could understand why. Having already been beaten by the Gunners in league and cup this season, going a goal behind early on did not bode well for Alex McLeish’s men.

It wasn’t long before the lead was doubled, and there was no fortune about Arsenal’s second goal, it was perfect from the moment Alex Song’s clipped pass over the Villa defence was delivered, to when Walcott took one touch and sidefooted a low finish inside Given’s left-hand post.

Villa were now staring into the abyss. Arteta tried his luck with a ferocious 25-yarder that Given did well to tip over the bar, while Walcott just failed to pick out Van Persie after another burst down the right flank.

Van Persie thought he had made it three shortly afterwards following a mix-up in the Villa defence, but his neat control and flick was somehow kept out of the net by a superb Stephen Warnock clearance.

A third goal to kill the game off was exactly what the Arsenal fans wanted in the second half, but the tempo of the game dropped dramatically.

Gervinho and Walcott were getting plenty of space down the flanks, but neither could quite find the final ball and in midfield the Gunners started to get a little complacent.

Villa started to sense there could be something in this game for them after all, but did not have the firepower up front to finish off a couple of half-chances, with Emile Heskey looking well past his best and Gabriel Agbonlahor almost as anonymous.

McLeish had precious few options on the bench, but Wenger had plenty and reacted by sending on Aaron Ramsey and Andre Santos for the busy but ineffective Gervinho and Gibbs.

That stiffened Arsenal’s resolve without really livening matters up much, which only happened when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Walcott for the final quarter of an hour.

He immediately started running at the Villa defence, and had a huge penalty shout for a tackle from Stephen Ireland turned down by referee Phil Dowd, correctly, suggested the replays.

The Gunners fans behind the north bank goal finally got the goal they craved in injury time when Arteta’s brilliant free-kick bulleted past Given to complete yet another profitable day’s work.

They will head to QPR next weekend fully confident of extending this run, and knowing that if their rivals continue to falter then a 15th successive season of Champions League football is within their grasp.

Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Gibbs (Andre Santos, 68), Arteta, Song, Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 77), Rosicky, Gervinho (Ramsey, 68) van Persie.

Subs not used: Fabianski, Jenkinson, Chamakh, Benayoun.

Aston Villa: Given, Hutton (Lichaj, 77) Collins, Cuellar, Warnock, Petrov, Herd (Gardner, 52), Albrighton, Ireland, Heskey (Weimann, 65), Agbonlahor.

Subs not used: Guzan, Bannan, Baker, Carruthers.

Booked: Warnock, Collins, Ireland, Collins, Lichaj.

Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire)

Att: 60, 108