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Saka sends Arsenal closer to CL return

BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) – Arsenal took another big step towards ending a five-year exile from the Champions League (CL) as Bukayo Saka’s strike beat Aston Villa 1-0 to open up a four-point lead in fourth in the Premier League.

The Gunners could even increase that gap with a game in hand over fifth-placed Manchester United and were well worthy of the three points against a toothless Villa despite the narrow scoreline.

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta had complained about the tight turnaround his side faced after Wednesday’s 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool.

That defeat ended a five-game winning run and there was no sign of tiredness from the visitors in the early stages.

Emile Smith Rowe returned to the starting line-up as one of two changes as Gabriel Martinelli and Aaron Ramsdale missed out through illness and injury respectively.

Aston Villa’s Ashley Young and Philippe Coutinho combine to tackle Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka during the match at Villa Park. PHOTO: AP

Smith Rowe had the first chance inside the three minutes when he fired over from Martin Odegaard’s pass. Odegaard and Thomas Partey were dominating the midfield and a nice move between the two deserved a better finish from the Ghanian as he fired straight at Emiliano Martinez.

Saka was a constant threat and fittingly got the only goal on 30 minutes when Villa failed to clear a free-kick and he fired low past Martinez from the edge of the area.

Villa improved after the break but lacked the creativity to break Arsenal down as Philippe Coutinho failed to hit the heights of his best form since joining on loan from Barcelona.

Ramsdale’s absence meant Bernd Leno was making his first Premier League appearance since August.

The German was not forced into a save until the final kick of the game when he parried Coutinho’s free-kick to safety and was mobbed by his teammates at full-time as Arsenal celebrated a big three points in their quest to get back to European football’s elite competition.

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