By Martyn Herman
LONDON, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Arsenal survived a late scare to regain top spot in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa on Monday, both their goals arriving in the space of a minute in the first half.
England midfielder Jack Wilshere opened the scoring after 34 minutes with an accurate left-foot finish and Villa self-destructed, conceding possession straight from the re-start and allowing Olivier Giroud to double the visitors' lead.
Christian Benteke's stooping header raised hopes of an unlikely comeback and the Belgian striker came close to an equaliser but Arsenal hung on to continue their fine record at Villa where they have not lost since 1998.
Arsenal began the evening in third place after wins for title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City at the weekend but responded in style to move a point clear at the top.
Arsene Wenger's side have 48 points from 21 matches, City have 47 and Chelsea 46 with fourth-placed Liverpool further back on 42 after also winning at the weekend.
"It's a massive three points - especially because we dropped a bit in the second half. We have done that a few times, letting teams come on to us but we dealt well with it," Wilshere told Sky Sports.
"In the past we used to feel the nerves when we were up against it. But this season we haven't and Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have been brilliant all season."
Arsenal dominated possession in the first half without really hurting Villa until Nacho Monreal picked out Wilshere who took one touch before sweeping a low shot past Brad Guzan.
Villa, disrupted by a head injury to defender Nathan Baker which required a seven-minute stoppage, then gifted Arsenal possession and Wilshere's ball into the box found Giroud who finished in clinical fashion.
Arsenal appeared to be coasting after the break but Villa roused themselves and Matthew Lowton's superb cross from the right was met by a diving Benteke who scored his first goal since September.
Arsenal suddenly looked jittery and with the clock ticking down another Lowton cross looked perfect for Benteke but he failed to connect properly with a header from in front of goal.
While Wenger looked displeased with some of his side's play, he was pleased with their resilience as Villa threatened.
"It was vital because the first half was more about playing, and the second half was more about fighting," he said.
"They made it very physical, put the ball up high in the air and we had a very good resilient performance in the second half. Overall we have shown again both sides of the game." (Editing by Ed Osmond)