By Chris Harris
If the hallmark of champions is their ability to win while underperforming, Arsenal appear to have what it takes to bring the title back to north London.
Arsène Wenger's side were far from their brilliant best against Bolton but second-half goals from Kolo Toure and Tomas Rosicky brought them a 11th consecutive win and reinforced their position at the Premier League summit.
Bolton made it tough, as they always do, scrapping for every ball and knocking the hosts out of their stride for much of the game. But Arsenal can now graft as well as craft, and they took their punishment before landing the knockout blows.
Toure chose the ideal time to open his account for the season, slamming in a low free-kick from 25 yards with 22 minutes left. Rosicky, back from injury and on as a substitute, provided a clever finish from Theo Walcott's low cross with nine minutes left.
It was the perfect gift for Wenger, who celebrates his 58th birthday on Monday, and the perfect filip for his team ahead of the midweek clash with Slavia Prague and next weekend's trip to Anfield.
The international break was cruel to Arsenal in two ways. It cost them the momentum they had built up from the start of the season plus the fitness of two players. Robin van Persie (knee) and Philippe Senderos (back) both picked up injuries while away with their countries.
On the plus side William Gallas was fit to start his first game for two months while Eduardo, in prolific form for Croatia, was given a chance to shine for his club. Wenger made one other change to the team which kicked off against Sunderland 13 days ago, Emmanuel Eboue replacing Abou Diaby in midfield.
Bolton had problems of their own of course. Managerless after Sammy Lee's departure in midweek and mired in the relegation zone, they also had to cope without the injured Nicolas Anelka. The former Gunner scored three times against Arsenal last season; no doubt Wenger was relieved to see his compatriot's name omitted from the teamsheet.
In Anelka's absence Kevin Davies assumed the role of lone striker as Bolton went with five across the midfield. It made for a scrappy, niggly encounter with Arsenal outnumbered in the centre and Fabregas shackled by the limpet-like Gavin McCann.
With the middle of the pitch so congested Arsenal needed to get the ball wide. When they did, they created chances. After eight minutes Alex Hleb raced down the left and cut the ball back. Andy O'Brien's attempted clearance bounced off Adebayor and back towards the Bolton defender, who just about scrambled the ball clear.
Two minutes later Adebayor was involved again. The Togolese striker brought down a high clearance and found Eboue in space on the right. He laid the ball back for Bacary Sagna, reunited with his hair extensions, to curl a teasing cross into the box. Adebayor leapt highest but could only glance the ball wide of the far post.
Gallas was next to go close. Fabregas curled a free-kick in from the right, Sagna flicked it on and Abdoulaye Meite could only help the ball towards Gallas 10 yards out. The Arsenal captain, off balance, fired high over the bar. Shortly afterwards Toure's fizzing shot on the turn bounced away for a corner.
All in all though, it was a fractious first half. Bolton, not for the first time, tested the referee and the laws of the game with a flurry of tackles which were over-zealous at best and downright dangerous at worst. Danny Guthrie caught Hleb, McCann and Diouf took it in turns to scythe down Sagna and Joey O'Brien went in two-footed on Eduardo. Diouf and McCann both went in the book although the latter did time one tackle perfectly as Adebayor charged into the penalty area.
The African looked the most likely to break the deadlock and he should have done so three minutes before the break. Eduardo skipped past a tackle on the left and stood up a cross to the back post. Adebayor mistimed his downward header and Jaaskelainen gathered gratefully.
Arsenal had an even better chance just 38 seconds into the second half. Eduardo clipped in another cross from the left and McCann beat Fabregas to the ball but inexplicably laid it into the path of the unmarked Eboue. The Ivorian's shot was high, wide and less than handsome.
Nevertheless, Arsenal had more urgency about them. Clichy broke down the left and squared for Fabregas, who stung Jaaskelainen's hands from 25 yards. Eboue almost connected with Eduardo's cross and Adebayor got a lucky bounce off Andy O'Brien but, having worked his way into a great position, lashed his shot wide.
You wondered how long Wenger would give it before making changes. The answer was an hour. Off went Eboue and Eduardo; on came Rosicky and Walcott. Their extra pace made the difference and Bolton were pushed further and further back.
Jaaskelainen kept out Gallas from point-blank range and made a more simple save from Fabregas' weak effort but the Bolton keeper had no chance when Toure stepped up to take responsibility for a free kick with 68 minutes on the clock. Fabregas tapped the ball to Mathieu Flamini and he set it for the onrushing Toure, who hammered a low shot into the bottom corner. The relief was palpable.
Bolton now had to come out and Arsenal took advantage. Walcott sprinted clear on the counter-attack, jinking past two challenges before crossing low into the box. Unfortunately no one was there to take advantage. Clichy tried his luck from distance but saw his shot fly wide and Adebayor messed up a one-on-one, rounding Jaaskelainen but forcing the ball wide and losing his footing.
Rosicky had a sighter from 20 yards and missed the target but the Czech international was in the right place at the right time with nine minutes left. Again Walcott was involved, latching onto Hleb's precise through-ball and finding space for a cross. His low delivery was stylishly clipped past Jaaskelainen by Rosicky. Game over.
- Toure Goal!
- Eboue 62
- Hleb 88
- Fabregas Yellow Card
- Eduardo 62
- Diaby 88
- Walcott 62
- Rosicky 62 Goal!
- McCann Yellow Card
- Guthrie 78
- Nolan Yellow Card
- Campo Yellow Card
- Diouf 68 Yellow Card
- Davies Yellow Card
- Al Habsi
- Giannakopoulos 78
- Braaten 68