Robin van Persie's 81st minute deflected drive finally saw off 10-man Birmingham at Highbury on Sunday.
The Dutchman, who had just replaced Robert Pires, let fly with a speculative effort as Arsenal searched frantically for the winner their dominance had deserved. The ball cannoned off the outstretched leg of Stephen Clemence and bobbled over the sprawling Maik Taylor to secure the three points.
It was particularly cruel on the keeper, who had single-handedly stopped Arsenal racking up a big score after the visitors lost Kenny Cunningham to a red card in the 24th minute.
First, the Northern Ireland No 1 blocked Robert Pires' penalty after the lively Freddie Ljungberg had been felled in the box. Taylor then pulled off a string of super saves as Arsenal poured forward in search of a crucial win.
It came, eventually, via fortunate means but Arsenal thoroughly deserved it. Arsène Wenger's side are quietly climbing the table and that's a healthy way to enter the international break.
Gilberto (ankle) and Dennis Bergkamp (back/groin) had been the main doubts ahead of this game. In the end the Brazilian started in place of Mathieu Flamini and the Dutchman was on the bench. The other change from Tuesday's win at Ajax saw Jens Lehmann replace Manuel Almunia. Thierry Henry (groin) and Philippe Senderos were still out.
Birmingham had a raft of injuries themselves but they started the game in style. After a couple of minutes, Emile Heskey muscled clear and stabbed the ball past Lehmann. Ashley Cole had to hack the ball off the line. Five minutes later, Jermaine Pennant skipped past Cesc Fabregas and raced down the right. His cross seemed perfect for Heskey but the England striker miscued his header at the near post.
Arsenal were struggling to get into the game and that did not change until they were handed two massive boosts. The first arrived in the 24th minute and resulted from the home side's first true moment of ingenuity. Gilberto's exquisite through-ball sent Ljungberg clear and Cunningham came hurtling in to swipe away his legs. It was a clear foul and the Irishman was the last defender. The red card was inevitable. Jose Antonio Reyes fired in the resulting free-kick left-footed but Taylor palmed the ball over the bar.
The keeper was starting to shine. Nine minutes before the break, Reyes raced through but was tackled, legally, by Dominic Johnson. The ball rolled to Ljungberg who was halted by the grounded Johnson, this time illegally. In the absence of Henry, Pires took the spot-kick but Taylor dived to his right to block. The ball bounced out but the Frenchman could only put an effort into the sidenetting.
All the drama seemed to finally rouse Arsenal from their early-game slumber. Cole flashed a dangerous, low cross through the six-yard box then Reyes conjured up four chances before the break. First he fired a rising drive over the angle of post and bar, he followed that with a deflected thunderbolt, a long-range shot and, finally, the Spaniard nearly squeezed a shot under the keeper.
The one-way traffic continued after half time.
Alexander Hleb had an effort charged down then, in the 53rd minute, Taylor made a breathtaking save. Pires headed clear from Pennant's free-kick and Reyes roared through before sliding a low ball across the face of the area for Ljungberg. The Swede hit it first time and his effort seemed destined for the top corner. Somehow Taylor managed to paw it aside.
Two minutes later the former Southampton stopper made a less spectacular but equally impressive save. Reyes lofted a pass into the path of Pires who chested it down and flicked goalward. Taylor thrust out his left hand to deflect the ball on to the base of the post.
You sensed it was starting to become 'one of those days'.
Perhaps Wenger was starting to get that feeling too because withdrew Hleb for Bergkamp just past the hour. Two minutes later, Reyes wriggled through and let fly from the eight yards out but Taylor blocked at the near post.
Just before the goal came, Birmingham had their best chance of the game. Pennant floated over a free-kick and Matthew Upson rose highest to power a header just over the bar. It would have been a sweet strike for the ex-Arsenal duo but, in the end, the irony would be directed against the visitors when Van Persie sent a deflected strike past Taylor.
Relief rang around Highbury as Van Persie sank to his knees in front of the East Stand. That emotion was replicated at full time.
Arsenal had thoroughly deserved their victory but they had some fortune in securing it.
- Pires 70
- Ljungberg 87
- Hleb 61
- Flamini 87
- Bergkamp 61
- Persie 70
- Cunningham Red Card
- Clapham 87
- Clemence Yellow Card
- Forssell 87