By Richard Clarke
Kolo Toure kept Arsenal's flagging title hopes alive with a crucial late equaliser against Middlesbrough at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger's side had been trailing since midway through the first half when Jeremie Alaidiere slotted home. However that strike had been contentious, as the former Gunner looked suspiciously offside in the build-up.
Emmanuel Adebayor had been controversially flagged in the opening minutes as Arsenal dominated early on. The Middlesbrough goal stung them and they reacted by piling on the pressure.
The second half was, quite simply, all Arsenal and the visitors resistance finally broke four minutes from time when Toure thundered in a header from a Fabregas corner.
This was Arsenal's fourth Premier League draw in a row and sees them off top spot for only the fourth week since September 2.
It was hardly what Arsène Wenger ordered but, for the second home game in succession, his side had shown the character to come back.
But now, more than ever, they need a Premier League win to put their title challenge back on track.
Before kick-off, Wenger recalled Toure and Robin van Persie to the first-team this afternoon after both had made their comeback s from injury at Wigan last Sunday. Emmanuel Eboue returned from suspension and slotted straight back in on the right side of the midfield. Bendtner, Gilberto and Philippe Senderos all dropped to the bench to accommodate them.
Five minutes before kick-off, Eduardo appeared at pitchside to receive the Arsenal.com Player of the Month for January. The injured striker received a huge ovation.
It was perhaps the motivation his team-mates needed having seen Manchester United leapfrog into top spot just 20 minutes earlier. It certainly seemed to inspire Arsenal in the opening quarter of this 5.15pm kick-off.
Within four minutes of the start, Adebayor had the ball in the net but it was ruled out - wrongly - by the assistant referee's flag. Though the Togolese striker was clearly beyond the last defender when he received the ball, the passer had been Middlesbrough midfielder George Boateng not an Arsenal player. Therefore, after he had slotted past Mark Schwarzer, the goal should have stood. Adebayor knew what had happened and made a vehement protestation to the officials. However it fell on deaf ears.
Still, Arsenal had started with real purpose. A fact illustrated when Eboue curled a cross past Stewart Downing on the byline and the ball bounced off the top of the bar. Then Cesc Fabregas clipped a high ball into the area for Adebayor but his header lacked power and was cleared.
Although Almunia had to boot clear after Aliadiere mounted a Middlesbrough raid down the left and Gary O'Neil drove over, the wind was at Arsenal's backs.
Inbetween those efforts, Eboue received the ball on edge of the area, jinked himself a little space and fired straight at Schwarzer. The Australian spilled the ball into the crowded area but Middlesbrough managed to clear.
The visiting goal was being peppered. Eboue set-up Fabregas to fire in a low shot then the Spaniard's long, lofted pass sent Adebayor clear for a moment but his touch could not beat Schwarzer.
Frankly you could not see a Middlesbrough goal for love nor money. So, given the bad luck Arsenal have had the last few weeks, you can tell what happened next.
Deep in his own half, Schwarzer sent a long free-kick forward for Aliadiere and Tuncay Sanli to run on to. The Arsenal defence were caught cold but replays showed the Frenchman was offside when the ball was played through.
It was the Turk who reached the ball first and, from then on, the Middlesbrough men showed their class. Tuncay sent a wonderful ball to the edge of the six-yard box where Aliadiere finished with aplomb. The former Arsenal forward celebrated initially then, just before he was enveloped by team-mates, he seemed to remember his debt to his former side.
However the goal did not affect the pattern of the game. Hleb shot across goal, Eboue had claims for a penalty and Sagna nodded over from a corner as half time approached. But nothing was going Arsenal's way.
They went into the tunnel at the break with their Premier League title hopes under massive threat. It was going to be a critical 45 minutes for Wenger's men.
Van Persie's low drive past the far post signalled Arsenal's early intent. Then, six minutes in, a Fabregas free-kick picked out the leaping William Gallas. However his header was far too heavy and flew high over the bar. One of the clearer chances Arsenal had created.
With more than 30 minutes to go, the home side had set up base camp in the Middlesbrough half and were throwing persistently probing passes into the visitors area.
However, although Toure nodded wide from a corner and Clichy let fly from distance, real goal-scoring opportunities were at a premium and Middlesbrough were defending with diligence.
Therefore, it was no surprise to see Walcott and Bendtner introduced on the hour as Wenger left just three men at the back.
The changes had an effect. Almost immediately, Hleb threaded a ball through for Fabregas to go one-on-one with Schwarzer. It was perhaps Arsenal's clearest legal chance of the game but the Australian keeper was out quickly to block with his legs.
In the 73rd minute, Toure chipped a cross into the area and Fabregas' low header touched the outside of the post en route wide. The Ivorian had now relinquished his defensive duties and was piling forward.
Schwarzer smothered one of his low crosses into the area but could do nothing when he powered home a Fabergas corner with four minutes left. However defender Andrew Taylor probably hindered not helped his keeper as the ball went in.
Matters got much worse for Middlesbrough seconds later when substitute Mido was sent off for catching Clichy in the head with a flying boot. The Frenchman was stretchered off and Philippe Senderos came on.
Arsenal scented victory in injury time. Only a wonderful challenge by Robert Huth denied Bendtner at the near post then Walcott found a little space but could not squeeze his shot through a crowded area.
The point sees Arsenal off top spot but the dominant emotion at full time was relief.
This could be have been much more damaging than it was.
- Sagna 61
- Toure Goal!
- Clichy 89
- van Persie 61
- Senderos 89
- Walcott 61
- Bendtner 61
- Wheater Yellow Card
- O'Neil Yellow Card
- Shawky 46
- Sanli 69
- Aliadiere Goal!
- Taylor 69
- Cattermole 46
- Mido Red Card