LONDON (AFP) - Arsenal stepped up their renewed challenge for a top four place in the Premier League with a ruthless 5-0 demolition of struggling Aston Villa on Sunday.
Arsene Wenger's side moved above Tottenham into fifth place and within touching distance of fourth-placed Southampton in the race to qualify for the Champions League thanks to their biggest win of the season.
Olivier Giroud opened the scoring early in the first half at the Emirates Stadium and Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Hector Bellerin struck after the interval to seal Arsenal's fifth successive win in all competitions.
After their impressive victory at champions Manchester City last month, this was more evidence that Arsenal, who were able to leave new Brazilian defender Gabriel Paulista as an unused substitute, are finally hitting their stride after a spluttering first half of the season.
In contrast, woeful Villa are hovering three points above the relegation zone after a third successive league defeat and the pressure will increase on boss Paul Lambert, whose side have now gone 10 hours and six matches since their last league goal in December.
That offensive futility piled unbearable pressure on Villa's defence and they were unable to withstand a blistering start from the Gunners, who showed no signs of being hamstrung by the absence of injured Chile winger Alexis Sanchez.
Arsenal's early dominance was rewarded in the eighth minute when Ozil produced a sublime volleyed back-flick to redirect Per Mertesacker's long ball into the path of Giroud.
The French forward galloped onto Ozil's pass, took two touches to steady himself and clipped a cool finish past Brad Guzan for his eighth goal of the season.
Wenger's side continued to swarm towards the Villa penalty area with little obstruction from the timid visitors and Cazorla's low strike from the edge of the area cannoned back off a post.
Arsenal were toying with Villa by now and Aaron Ramsey tested Guzan with a stinging drive.
After 41 minutes mostly spent watching Arsenal weaving intricate passing patterns across the Emirates turf, Villa finally produced a moment of attacking menace.
It should have brought an equalising goal as Andreas Weimann met a cross just six yards out, but the Villa forward couldn't get enough power or accuracy on his header to beat David Ospina.
When Christian Benteke dragged a half-chance wide and then headed over at the start of the second half, it seemed Villa were poised to turn Arsenal's Sunday stroll into a more exacting afternoon.
But, not for the first time this season, Villa's profligacy would come back to haunt them.
Pressing forward in search for an equaliser, Lambert's side were caught cold by an Arsenal counter in the 56th minute.
Giroud collected a long ball and slipped a perfectly weighted pass to Ozil, whose run had taken him beyond the Villa defence.
The German midfielder guided a fine strike into the far corner for just his second league goal of the season, with the other also coming against Villa in September.
That was a shattering blow to Villa's fragile morale and Walcott took advantage to claim his first league goal since January last year in the 63rd minute.
After a long battle to return from a serious knee injury, the England winger netted in the FA Cup against Brighton last week and continued his return to peak form with a clinical finish from Cazorla's pass as the Villa defence parted obligingly.
The margin of defeat became even more embarrassing for Villa in the 75th minute when Guzan brought down substitute Chuba Akpom and Cazorla just managed to squeeze his penalty past the American goalkeeper.
And there was worse to come for Villa in stoppage-time as teenage right-back Bellerin steered in a low long-range effort for his first Arsenal goal.