Arsenal 1 – 2 Aston Villa
By Sam Sheringham
Darren Bent scored twice to help Aston Villa dent Arsenal’s hopes of automatic Champions League qualification.
The England striker volleyed past Wojciech Szczesny after 11 minutes and latched on to Ashley Young’s pass to double the lead four minutes later.
Arsenal fought back and Robin van Persie struck the post before Marouane Chamakh’s second-half header was ruled out for a push on Kyle Walker.
Van Persie prodded home a late goal but Villa held on for victory.
The result averted any remaining chance of Villa being relegated this season and moved them into 13th position.
For Arsenal, a second straight defeat continued an alarming late-season collapse that has seen them win just two of their last 10 league games.
It also provided ammunition to fans eager to see an overhaul at the Emirates in the summer and the compulsory lap of honour by Arsene Wenger and his players following the last home match of the season had anything but a celebratory feel.
The Gunners are now in serious danger of having to negotiate a tricky two-leg qualifier to reach the group stage of the Champions League.
A victory would have taken them within a point of Chelsea in second, but defeat means Manchester City could now go above the Gunners into third with a home victory over Stoke on Tuesday.
Arsenal, who welcomed centre-back Thomas Vermaelen back from an eight-month Achilles injury lay-off, began at a laborious pace, seemingly intent on playing themselves into the game.
Villa, by contrast, looked energetic, quick and purposeful and had already threatened on the counter-attack before Bent gave them the lead.
Walker’s chipped pass was inch-perfect for the England striker, who controlled the ball on his chest and stretched to plant a volley over the advancing Szczesny.
Four minutes later, Vermaelen’s slip allowed Young the time and space to thread a pass through to Bent, who easily slotted his second goal of the game.
Belatedly, a sense of urgency entered Arsenal’s play, and the home side were convinced they should have been awarded a penalty on the half-hour mark.
Aaron Ramsey was lining up a shot inside the box when he was caught by Richard Dunne but referee Michael Oliver waved away the appeals.
Jack Wilshere’s through-ball then sent Van Persie racing clear, the Dutchman rounding James Collins before firing a shot against the far post.
Moments later, Vermaelen got his head to a corner but the ball sailed narrowly over the bar.
Wenger brought on striker Chamakh for defender Sebastien Squillaci at half-time.
And while the change was clearly designed to increase Arsenal’s options in attack, it was the hole left by the French stopper’s absence at the back that almost proved fatal as Bent pounced on a through-ball but his weak shot was easily saved by Szczesny.
From then on, the second half was largely one-way traffic as Arsenal pushed for a lifeline.
The pressure almost told when Van Persie squared for Kieran Gibbs but the left-back’s close-range shot was smothered by Brad Friedel.
Shortly afterwards, Van Persie found space in the box but shot wastefully over before Theo Walcott turned Nicklas Bendtner’s header the wrong side of the post.
With three strikers on the pitch, Arsenal left themselves open to Villa breaks and a fine run from Stewart Downing set up Young for a low strike that was well-saved by Szczesny, who regained his composure to save Downing’s effort from the loose ball.
Arsenal thought they were back in the game when Chamakh rose to head home Walcott’s cross but Oliver felt the Moroccan striker had fouled Walker.
The siege finally brought its reward in the 89th minute when Van Persie lashed home a loose ball from close-range and when Dunne conceded a free-kick on the edge of the box deep into stoppage-time, the stage appeared set for a fairytale equaliser from Vermaelen.
But the Belgian’s shot struck the wall and moments later boos rang around the stadium as the final whistle confirmed another costly Gunners defeat.