By Richard Clarke
Arsenal kept alive their faint, faint chances of a title comeback with a crushing 6-2 victory at relegated Derby County on Monday night.
Goals from Nicklas Bendtner, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott plus a second-half hat-trick from Emmanuel Adebayor were enough to see off Paul Jewell's side. The hosts had looked lively early on but strikes in either period from Jay McEveley and Robert Earnshaw were never enough.
Once they had roused themselves from a sluggish start, Arsenal took charge and could have many more goals than the half-dozen they registered.
Adebayor's treble, his second against Derby this season, will hog the headlines but Walcott's strike was the highlight of the night as the England international once again took the eye.
This victory puts Arsenal four points adrift of two leading teams. Only a rose-tinted optimist would fancy Wenger's men to lift the Premier League trophy at Sunderland on May 11. It would require both Chelsea and Manchester United to fail to register a win in either of their last two games.
Both where there is life there is hope. And Arsenal are still just about registering a pulse in this title race.
At his pre-match press conference on Friday, Wenger had suggested Denilson, Bendtner and Lukasz Fabianski as possible starters. The manager said he was aiming to give a little end-of-season experience to the younger end of his squad. He was as good as his word.
In addition, Alex Song, 20, and Walcott, 19, retained their places at centre half and on the left wing respectively. There was experience on the bench in the form of Gilberto, Adebayor and Philippe Senderos.
There was a short, sharp hailstorm about 30 minutes before kick-off but, metaphorically it had been raining on Derby County all season. They had been bottom of the Premier League since October 28 and long since relegated.
Despite all that, the home side started much the brighter this evening.
In the third minute Bendtner fired over a cross from the left and Eboue hoiked a shot over the bar. But Derby might have opened the lead twice in following minute. First Emanuel Villa swept a shot wide from 10 yards then Mile Sterjovski let fly and Song stretched to clear. The ball sliced off the foot of the Arsenal defender and flew a couple of yards wide with Fabianski left flatfooted.
In reality, the first 24 minutes had belonged to Derby's endeavour. But they would be undone by what happened in the 25th when Darren Moore made the simplest error at the back. It allowed Bendtner to exchange passes with Van Persie and slot home past Roy Carroll.
Derby were now rattled. Walcott escaped seconds later, eschewed the possibility of passing to Bendtner and instead set up the unmarked Van Persie. Inexplicably he slotted the ball wide.
It would prove a costly mistake. On the half hour Song fouled Sterjovski on the left. Robbie Savage planted the free-kick in the midst of the area, and after Arsenal failed to clear McEveley stabbed home from close range.
On 30 minutes had been played but both sides had displayed the defensive vulnerability that had undermined their campaigns at either end of the table.
Van Persie blazed over and Fabregas stung Carroll's hands from 30 yards as Arsenal chased the lead. They found it in spectacular fashion six minutes from the break. Toure clipped a lofted pass into the area, Van Persie slipped away from his marker, chested the ball down and half-volleyed a rising drive into the roof of the net.
It was the Dutchman's last significant moment; he was replaced at half time by Emmanuel Adebayor.
Arsenal slipped into cruise control at the start of the second half. Toure had a couple of rocket shots fizz over the bar, Bendtner thumped high and, just before the hour, Carroll saved from Adebayor at the near post.
The inevitable third came seconds later. Denilson, who was having a tidy game in midfield, sent Walcott into the area. He skipped past his marker on the byline and cut the ball back to Eboue whose touch allowed Adebayor to slide home a third.
Walcott went through in acres of space seconds later but steered his shot wide.
It was now a procession for Arsenal. They could create chances at will while Derby were a shadow of the competitive side that had started the game.
Eboue spurned a couple of chances to add a fourth but the game seemed meandering to a close.
Or was it.
Benny Feilhaber kept Fabianski interested with a drive from distance. Then, in the 76th minute, substitute Earnshaw escaped to steer a shot past Fabianski and just inside the far post.
For a minute the Derby crowd believed once more.
It was only a minute, mind. Less than 90 seconds later Walcott danced into the area, cut inside his marker and curled a sumptuous shot into the far corner of the net.
Ten minutes from time, Adebayor slipped home a simple fifth and, in extra time, skipped past Carroll to roll home his hat-trick.
It had been a comprehensive victory.
- Toure 78
- Walcott Goal!
- Denilson 64
- Bendtner Goal!
- van Persie 46 Goal!
- Djourou 78
- Silva 64
- Adebayor 46 Goal! Goal! Goal!
- McEveley Goal!
- Sterjovski 69
- Ghaly 60
- Feilhaber 60
- Earnshaw 69 Goal!