By Richard Clarke
Arsenal came away with a solitary point and a sense of frustration following their visit to Wigan Athletic on Sunday.
The draw does extend their lead in the Premier League to two points but Manchester United now have a game in hand.
Wigan keeper Chris Kirkland had to save superbly from Emmanuel Adebayor after only 45 seconds and would have to pull off three more fine stops in a game the visitors bossed, including one from Cesc Fabregas in the final seconds of normal time.
It would be wrong to say Arsenal were suffering from a Champions League hangover. Their performance was not that bad and a dogged Wigan side gave them similar problems at Emirates Stadium earlier in the season.
The heavy, muddy pitch was much more of a factor as Arsenal struggled to put their familiar slick style into practice. Even the returns of Kolo Toure and Robin van Persie could not lift the game.
It was a disappointing - but not decisive afternoon - for Wenger's side.
The Frenchman's only changes from the San Siro were enforced. Abou Diaby had collected a calf injury during that game while Emmanuel Eboue was seeing out the last game of the three-match suspension he had picked up for that red card at Manchester United in the FA Cup Fifth Round defeat.
Their replacements were Nicklas Bendtner, whose selection up front saw Alex Hleb drop back to the left-side of midfield, and Gilberto. The Brazilian was making his 29th appearance of the season, 14 of which had been as a substitute. Somewhat surprisingly, Wenger accommodated Gilberto in central midfield alongside Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas was moved out the right.
However there was brighter news on the bench with Kolo Toure and Alex Song back after injury. Van Persie was again named as a substitute having been unused at Milan.
The state of the Wigan pitch had been a talking point before kick-off. Certainly it was muddy and still bore the markings of the last Wigan Warriors Rugby League game it had hosted. At least the expected rain had not arrived to make matters any worse. However the surface would be a factor throughout the game.
That said, Arsenal should have taken the lead right from the whistle. Only 45 seconds had elapsed when an astute pass from Fabregas sent Adebayor through. The Togolese striker outpaced the home defence but Kirkland rushed the edge of his area and blocked wonderfully.
The visitors started the game well and, early on, seemed determined to stick to their passing principles. After five minutes, Adebayor and Bendtner combined adroitly but Melchiot had shadowed the latter all the way and managed to pull off a sliding block.
In the 10th minute Flamini nipped in front of Michael Brown for Bendtner, who had an excellent first half, to trickle a shot wide.
However Wigan are a resilient side under Steve Bruce and, in recent games, have scrapped their way clear of the danger zone. They relied on the same qualities to drag themselves back into this afternoon's game.
Antonio Valencia fooled Clichy on the right and cut inside for Wilson Palacios to blunder a shot wide when he should have done better. Then, just before the half-hour, Wigan had claims for a penalty when Michael Brown's drive cannoned back off the Arsenal defence.
However, most of the quality was coming from the visitors. In the 36th minute Clichy threw a cross into the area and Fabregas sent in an angled header. It did not have power but it was directed just inside the post. Kirkland stretched himself to his right to make his second fine save of the game.
As the half-time whistle blew, Arsenal went down the tunnel fully aware that they would need the same brand of tenacity they had shown at the San Siro, albeit with a different style of football.
The visitors nearly got the goal they deserved twice within five minutes of the restart. Firstly, Clichy's long free-kick was knocked down by Kirkland to Adebayor on the edge of the area but the keeper recovered to make another fine save. Then Fabregas and Hleb spurned chances to convert when the ball ran loose in the Wigan area.
However, yet again, the home side responded. The front running of Marlon King forced William Gallas to collide with Manuel Almunia as the keeper came out to clear. Just before the hour, substitute Antoine Sibierski crossed from the right and Jason Koumas' deflected shot trickled just wide.
Suddenly the game had found some life and Wigan were playing their part. In the 63rd minute, Valencia's vicious curling drive forced Almunia into his first major action of the match.
Two minutes later, Wenger brought on Toure and Van Persie for Gilberto and Bendtner. The Dutchman, making his first appearance since January, went up front but the Ivorian slotted in the right of midfield.
The changes had no immediate effect and, after Valencia sent a drive in the area following good work from Melchiot, the first signs of real urgency started to the visitors' game.
Van Persie sent a free-kick high over the bar and, with seven minutes left, thumped an effort over the bar when well-placed. In a move entirely out of keeping with the game, the final minutes were frantic and incisive. With two minutes left, Fabregas shot straight at Kirkland after Adebayor had put him through. At the other end, the Spaniard screwed a clearance over his own bar in injury time then a thumping drive from Koumas was blocked.
Arsenal will feel this was two precious points dropped, the reaction of the Wigan fans at the end told you everything about the one they gained.
But there is still time for Wenger's men to recover.
- Silva 66 Yellow Card
- Bendtner 66 Yellow Card
- Toure 66
- Persie 66
- King Yellow Card
- Heskey 55
- Sibierski 55