By Richard Clarke
Stunning, simply stunning.
At the break, Arsenal were two goals and one man down at Bolton with their title bid in tatters. However, 45 minutes later, they were celebrating their first win in six Premier League games thanks to William Gallas' volley, Robin van Persie's penalty and an own goal by Jlloyd Samuel just 15 seconds from the end of normal time.
It was just what the doctor - and Arsène Wenger - had ordered.
Arsenal were the better side in the first half but defensive errors were punished by Matt Taylor after 14 and 43 minutes. Inbetween those Abou Diaby was sent off for a foul on Gretar Steinsson.
The visitors had been unlucky but it seemed their much-discussed fallibilities had come back to haunt them. Gallas' goal was crucial but so was Wenger's decision to bring Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott off the bench. The pair made major contributions to a game that could right many of the wrongs in recent weeks.
It certainly pushed them up to second place and was a huge fillip ahead of a massive week.
Wenger made radical changes to the side beaten Chelsea last Sunday. The Emmanuels, Adebayor and Eboue, were left on the bench while Sagna was out with an injury picked up during that game. Philippe Senderos came in at centre back with Kolo Toure pushed out to cover at right back. Diaby was employed on the left with Alex Hleb occupying the right side in the usual 4-4-1-1.
You could have argued the changes were made with a view to the Champions League Quarter-Final with Liverpool in midweek. However, in his pre-match press conference, Wenger had said his aims where much more short-term than that.
A win and a good performance were required to retain any hope of overhauling Manchester United in the title race, prepare for Liverpool and repair the confidence fractured by a run of one win in eight games.
It hammered down with rain just ahead of kick-off. Even though British Summer Time was due to start this evening, this had all the hallmarks of mid-winter fixture.
Arsenal started well - and despite what would happen - the possession and shots statistics said the visitors were on top in the opening period.
After two minutes Flamini put through Bendtner who controlled the ball expertly with his first touch. However Andy O'Brien was in pursuit. The Bolton defender hung on the Dane's shoulder and his next touch allowed keeper Ali Al Habsi to gather.
A couple of minutes later, Van Persie received the ball in space on the left of the area and fired straight at Al Habsi. Bendtner and Van Persie twice had snapshots fly wide as Arsenal piled on the early pressure.
The visitors seemed set to dominate. They had started with confidence that belied their recent form.
However in the 14th minute they fell behind. El Hadji Diouf fed Gretar Steinsson near the right-hand byline. He whipped in an excellent curling cross to the near post where Taylor stole in ahead of Toure to thunder home a header from close range.
It was utterly against the run of play but, at the same time, utterly typical of recent Arsenal games.
Despite the goal, the game was still being played in the Bolton half. There was mild consternation when Almunia punched only partly clear from Diouf's free-kick. But Arsenal won a flurry of corners around the half-hour. From one, Toure's 'grubber' shot deflected a couple of times before trickling just wide.
However, 12 minutes from the break, matters got much worse for Arsenal when Diaby was sent off for a foul on Steinsson. The Frenchman's foot was up and certainly caught the full back on the ankle but referee Chris Foy's red card seemed a little harsh.
Bendtner's tenacity nearly got Arsenal on level terms immediately but, having won the ball back superbly, Al-Habsi turned aside his drive.
Arsenal were unfortunate to be behind but, just before the break, Bolton doubled their lead. Flamini was caught in possession by Gavin McCann and the ball fell to Taylor on the edge of the area. His drive deflected off the heels of Gallas and drifted past Almunia into the corner of the net.
It was a cruel, cruel blow to a side who have suffered their fair share of misfortune in recent weeks. Flamini might have got Arsenal on the scoresheet seconds before the whistle but his drive flew over the bar.
Wenger's side went into dressing room with everything to do.
At the start of the second half it was Bolton who suddenly looked like the title contenders. Gary Cahill drove past the post and Almunia spilled Taylor's corner at the feet of Davies but the striker could not convert.
Although Fabregas fired wide it was all Bolton. Cahill's header was snaffled off the line by Almunia though the defender did climb all over Toure to reach the ball.
On the hour, Wenger made changes. Walcott and Adebayor replaced Senderos and the unlucky Bendtner. The manager was now switching to 3-4-2 in search of a comeback.
It made a difference almost immediately when Van Persie won a corner. Fabregas floated it over and Gallas scored with a sweetly struck volley at the far post.
Game on once more - and suddenly Bolton looked nervous.
The equaliser came five minutes later. Adebayor sent Flamini clear in the area but Al Habsi made a fine save. However the ball fell loose, Hleb beat Cahill to it and the Belarus man tumbled over the Bolton defender's challenge. Van Persie converted from the spot. His first goal since late October.
Suddenly it seemed like Arsenal had the extra man. Adebayor nearly got on the end of a long punt forward and then drifted a chip over.
Van Persie curled an effort wide and then wonderful work by Walcott saw the Dutchman slice an effort over the bar at the near post.
It seemed that, valiant though it had been, Arsenal's comeback would only be enough for a draw.
However seconds from the end Arsenal went forward. Hleb found Fabregas in the area. His drive came off Samuel and trickled into the net. The visiting fans erupted.
The winner was as welcome as it was deserved.
- Almunia Yellow Card
- Senderos 60
- Gallas Goal!
- Toure Yellow Card
- Diaby Red Card
- Fabregas Yellow Card
- Bendtner 60
- van Persie 90 Goal!
- Hoyte 90
- Walcott 60
- Adebayor 60
- Al Habsi
- Taylor 78 Goal! Goal!
- McCann Yellow Card
- Davies Yellow Card
- Diouf 78 Yellow Card
- Hunt 78
- Giannakopoulos 78