By Richard Clarke
Arsenal moved five points clear at the top of the Premier League with a fraught and frantic 2-0 win over Blackburn at Emirates Stadium on Monday night.
From the fourth to the 92nd minute, only a Philippe Senderos header divided the sides.
Arsenal created the better of the chances - most notably when Alex Hleb thumped a shot against the base of the post - but they never quite killed off a resilient Blackburn side until Emmanuel Adebayor cracked home a close-range shot just before the final whistle.
As Manchester United and Chelsea will testify, title victories are build on performances such as this - when, with the pressure mounting, you respond in the most positive way.
Make no mistake, despite Blackburn's endeavour, tonight Arsenal fully deserved their three points. It was not comfortable but games such as these never are. And, remember, it won't get any easier from here on in.
But this evening Arsenal proved to their fans, the Premier League and themselves that they have the stuff of champions.
In the build-up to this game, Wenger had suggested he might be without as many as 11 first-team players. In the end, Senderos (knee) and Mathieu Flamini (hamstring) recovered in time to make it.
However the absentee list was still lengthy: Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure, Alex Song (all international duty), Johan Djourou (groin), Robin van Persie (thigh), Abou Diaby (calf), Manuel Almunia (sick), Denilson (hamstring) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring). Yet despite all that, there was actually only one change in the starting XI - Gilberto returning in place of Diaby.
This was always going to be one of the toughest of Arsenal's remaining home fixtures. But all of a sudden it had become massive.
Since Arsenal had won at Eastlands last Saturday lunchtime, Manchester United had come within a 94th-minute equaliser of dropping six points. In fact they had dropped five. Meanwhile third-place Chelsea had let two slip at home to Liverpool on Sunday.
For the first time since that trip to Newcastle just before Christmas, Arsenal had the chance to lead the Premier League table by more than a nose.
And they were certainly the quicker out of the stalls this evening.
They simply deluged Blackburn in the opening stages. In the second minute, Bacary Sagna skipped past a couple of challenges on the right and crossed for the unmarked Fabregas, whose chest control let him down at the crucial moment.
Then Eduardo went through only but was clipped just before he reached the area and his stumble allowed the Blackburn defence to sweep the ball behind for a corner. The Croatian international fired it over to the edge of the six-yard box where it was met by a firm header from Senderos.
The Swiss defender was engulfed by his team-mates after the ball went in. In the circumstances you sensed it might a crucial goal in the season not just the game.
Arsenal did not sit back and admire their work. They swarmed all over the visitors in the minutes that followed. Adebayor and Eduardo received the ball in dangerous positions as the Blackburn defence creaked under the weight of mounting Arsenal pressure. Steven Reid flicked a header wide from Bentley's free-kick but when Flamini skied a lay-off from Sagna yards over the bar in the 19th minute it was pretty much the first thing the home side had done wrong all evening.
Midway through the half the French midfielder should have made amends when he went raced onto Fabregas' header. However his bobbling drive bounced away off Brad Friedel's legs.
The tempo dropped markedly after that and Blackburn finally emerged from their own half and won a couple of corners. However the excellent Sagna inspired Arsenal into further forays forward.
Blackburn gave the home side their first genuine scare in the 36th minute when Brett Emerton curled over a cross from the right that Benni McCarthy and Roque Santa Cruz got a touch on. Both had too much space and had either made a solid connection the scores would have been level.
The Paraguayan nearly slid in a goal late in the half from Andre Ooijer's raking cross. Arsenal had been dominant team in the opening period but, at the break, the visitors had suggested they would be the test many had predicted.
Bentley nearly proved that in the opening seconds when he bent a low free-kick towards the near post and the stooping Lehmann shovelled the ball wide.
But Arsenal might have made the game safe seconds later when Eduardo appeared on the right and eschewed his team-mates in the middle to drill a pass to Hleb on the far side of the area. The Belarus midfielder took a touch and hammered his drive against the base of the post.
To this point Adebayor had being having a quiet game compared to his imperious form of late. That changed in the 53rd minute when he collected Eduardo's chip forward, cruised past his marker and thumped an angled shot against the legs of Friedel.
The game was opening up now. Arsenal looked the team more likely to score but Blackburn were having an ominous amount of pressure. Emirates Stadium was as nervy as it was passionate.
The greatest soothing influence from a home perspective was now Adebayor. Fifteen minutes from time, he tricked his way past a couple of defenders in the area and fired low at Friedel. The American half-saved it and the ball was cleared. The Togolese striker did something similar a couple of minutes later but this time the ball went out for a corner.
Hleb stung Friedel's hands with 10 minutes left as Arsenal began to look like the end of the game would see them as dominant as the start.
Fabregas had a couple of efforts in the dying minutes. The better of them was a flashing shot just wide.
Two minutes into added time, the second finally arrived. Hleb waltzed into space inside the area and squared to Adebayor who slammed home his shot from the edge of the six-yard box.
Arsenal had taken full advantage of their rivals' faltering form.
- Senderos Goal!
- Fabregas Yellow Card
- Adebayor Goal!
- Ooijer 80
- Kerimoglu 76
- McCarthy 76
- Mokoena 76
- Rigters 80
- Roberts 76