By Richard Clarke
Nicolas Anelka came back to haunt Arsenal with two superb goals as they slipped to defeat at Bolton on Saturday.
The French striker, first brought to English football by Arsène Wenger in 1997, scored a scorching long-range drive to put the home side 2-0 up at the end of the opening period. Gilberto's rapid response kept Arsenal in touch but, despite sustained second-half pressure from the visitors, Anelka latched on to a through ball from Ivan Campo to slot home the killer goal 14 minutes from time.
Arsène Wenger's side were always up against it after slack marking allowed Abdoulaye Faye to nod home from a corner after only eight minutes. In fairness they responded to Bolton's buffeting with some decent football. They hit the woodwork three times in the second half and, on another day, might have come away with a point. However the Bolton bogey goes on. They have not won at the Reebok for five Premiership games.
This defeat was Arsenal's third in the League this term. The top two - Manchester United and Chelsea - meet on Sunday at Old Trafford. It is only November of course but they look a long way away after this defeat.
The inclusion of Theo Walcott for only his second Premiership start was a surprise. Wenger had lost Thierry Henry (neck) and Robin van Persie (suspension) from Tuesday's win over Hamburg. Emmanuel Adebayor came in to play the lone striker's role.
Gilberto returned in the centre and Freddie Ljungberg was retained on the left. Alex Hleb dropped to the bench.
Understandably, statistics supporting Bolton's hold over Arsenal at the Reebok Stadium was hauled out once again in the prelude to this game. However the Lancashire side were on a poor run of form so it was vital that the visitors began the game with conviction. They did not disappoint.
In the second minute, Walcott crossed low to Adebayor who stabbed a shot straight at Jussi Jaaskelainen when he should have done better. On six minutes Emmanuel Eboue was fouled on the right but picked himself up and whipped a cross into the six-yard box. Nicky Hunt made a hash of his clearance and skewed the ball narrowly over the bar.
Arsenal had started commendably well but all their good work would be undone a couple of minutes later.
El-Hadji Diouf swung a corner into the near post and Faye raced in unmarked to power home a header from close range.
Arsenal responded well to the goal and continued to pass the ball crisply. On the quarter-hour, Gael Clichy crossed for Adebayor to nod just wide from 12 yards.
However the visitors would soon lose their way. Referee Mike Dean showed a spate of yellow cards midway through the half. By the time he had finished, Bolton were in control. They attacked Arsenal down both flanks with success and Diouf was a continual irritant.
The Senegalese striker went close on a couple of occasions and Kevin Nolan's shot seemed goalbound before deflecting wide off Philippe Senderos.
Two minutes before the break, Quinton Fortune limped off for Ivan Campo to come on. As half time approached it seemed Arsenal had weathered the storm.
Then they conceded another.
Anelka collected the ball on the left, cut inside Toure and sent a wonderful, dipping shot into the far corner of the net. It was the Frenchman's first Premiership goal for Bolton but its quality would have been no surprise to anyone who saw Anelka play in an Arsenal shirt in the late 1990s.
The visitors needed another response. Gilberto provided it instantly by rising unmarked to nod home a cross from Walcott. The stand-in captain picked up the ball, tucked it under his arm, ran back and plonked it on the centre spot.
You hoped it was a statement of intent for the second half.
Bolton had to make another change at the break. Hunt had been limping for much of the final few minute of the opening period so Stelios came on.
To their credit, Arsenal roared at Bolton straight from the kick-off. Walcott whipped down the right and crossed to the far post. Ljungberg stooped low to meet it and his header seemed destined for the top corner. In fact it bounced off the corner of post and bar.
A minute later Toure raced in to meet Walcott's low cross. His connection was solid but his direction a few inches too high. In the 58th minute, Adebayor sped down the left and Walcott's fierce drive was deflected over the bar.
Arsenal were going for the jugular and Wenger chanced his arm still further by throwing on Baptista for Flamini.
Bolton had been battered but you knew they would come again. In the 71st minute they had two chances to kill the game. Diouf's free-kick was inadvertently nodded on by Toure and Lehmann threw himself to his left to save. He then clawed away Anelka's follow-up shot onto the inside of the post.
But the German could do little with Anelka's second a few minutes later. The Frenchman sprinted onto Campo's slide-rule pass and coolly slotted the ball into the far corner of the net. It was the type of finish in which he specialised during his time at Highbury.
Arsenal roused themselves for one last revival. Adebayor swivelled on the edge of the area and thumped a shot against the woodwork. In injury time, a Fabregas shot shaved the outside of the upright.
It was that kind of day.
- Lehmann Yellow Card
- Senderos Yellow Card
- Toure Yellow Card
- Ljungberg 74 Yellow Card
- Flamini 60
- Silva Goal!
- Hleb 74
- Baptista 60
- Hunt 46
- Faye Goal!
- Fortune 43 Yellow Card
- Davies Yellow Card
- Anelka Goal! Goal!
- Giannakopoulos 46
- Campo 43 Yellow Card