By Richard Clarke
Arsenal will go into Christmas in fourth place after winning a festive eight-goal thriller against Blackburn at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Shabani Nonda's spot-kick gave the visitors a shock lead in the third minute but, before the half-hour, Arsène Wenger's side had this highly entertaining game by the scruff of the neck. Gilberto's header, Alex Hleb's meandering second and Emmanuel Adebayor's penalty left them 3-1 in front.
It seemed Arsenal were set to score a hatful but Nonda's acrobatic second made for a tense finish before Robin van Persie slid home a reassuring fourth and fifth late on. Mathieu Flamini rammed home a sixth for good measure in injury time.
At the final whistle, Emirates Stadium roared but perhaps the scoreline did not tell the true story of this wonderful, wonderful game.
Still this was the 19th game of the season - halfway for 2006/07 - and Arsenal are in the Champions League places. The manager suggested before this game that qualifying for Europe's top competition was "compulsory". However Wenger also argued he was still chasing the top two.
The confidence gained from this scoreline will only help.
The Frenchman made three changes from the team held to a draw by Portsmouth last weekend. Tomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Adebayor and Justin Hoyte came in while Jeremie Aliadiere, Emmanuel Eboue and Freddie Ljungberg made way. The latter pair had picked up ankle and hamstring injuries respectively.
Emirates Stadium was cold this afternoon - very cold. And the home team would be caught in similar state in the third minute when a stumbling Toure brought down David Bentley. It was a 50:50 decision. The former Arsenal striker was on the way down but the Ivorian definitely made contact. Jens Lehmann went the right way but Nonda's spot-kick beat him into the corner.
Once again Arsenal were behind at Emirates Stadium.
In reply, Adebayor stormed down the left and cut the ball back for Van Persie to clip a shot just wide. Then, Toure nodded Rosicky's corner onto the top of the bar. There was obviously a Blackburn touch as the ball left the defender's head. It went out for a corner on the other side. Van Persie floated it over and Gilberto steered his header into the far side of the net. It was the Brazilian's seventh of the season, taking him level with Thierry Henry and his Dutch supplier.
A minute later, Adebayor bulldozered through but just failed to poke his shot past Brad Freidel.
Blackburn came into this game just outside the relegation places however they still retained many of the rugged qualities that sent them into the European places last season. Lehmann held Tugay's free-kick at the second attempt then Bentley forced Arsenal's German keeper to tip over.
It was fast tuning into a wonderful game, full of energy and opportunities. Neither midfield had much control so the game flowed from end to end. It was no surprise when the second and third goals came so quickly.
In the 23rd minute Fabregas fed Adebayor who in turn found Hleb in the area. The Belarus swerved past Andy Todd with ease and then passed the ball into the far corner of the net.
On the half-hour the same duo - Fabregas and Adebayor - sent Van Persie clear eight yards out. Lucas Neill came across and took his legs. Referee Webb pointed to the spot but brandished only a yellow card to the Australian defender.
Adebayor sent Freidel the wrong way from the spot. Arsenal now had the game where they wanted it.
Ten minutes before the break, Rosicky broke out of defence and tapped the ball to Hleb, who had hared forward in support. The Belarus advanced into the area and once again turned his marker. There was a clear chance to shoot but he elected to pass square in search of Adebayor and the ball was cleared behind.
The game was being played a vibrant pace. One second Lehmann was hooking the ball away from under his bar, the next Freidel was shovelling away a long-range effort by Rosicky.
Bentley was proving a thorn in Arsenal's side this afternoon. A couple of minutes before half-time he tested Lehmann again from distance.
Fabregas nearly squeezed home a deflected shot almost immediately after the restart then Adebayor raided down the left but his cross found no-one. Rosicky's shot pass fed Fabregas again but Freidel saved once more.
Another goal was coming and it was highly likely to go in the Blackburn net. On the hour, Adebayor reached the left-hand byline and cut the ball back to Rosicky. The sliding Czech midfielder smashed a shot goalwards but Andre Ooijer raced back on to the line and nodded the ball onto the bar.
Van Persie cracked a shot into the chest of Freidel as Arsenal began to enjoy themselves.
However, the home side were shocked again in the 69th minute as Blackburn scored once more. Brett Emerton sent over a deep cross from the left, substitute Matt Derbyshire stooped low to send a header onto the underside of the bar. It bounced down but Nonda gymnastically hooked in his second of the game.
Arsenal were now showing some nerves. They could ill-afford a second successive home draw. Van Persie had a shot blocked but, at the other end, Morten Gamst Pedersen flashed a dangerous ball across the face of goal.
The Norwegian then profited from indecision in the Arsenal area and Lehmann had to tip over his spectacular scissor-kick with eight minutes left.
Van Persie may have settled any lingering concerns straight afterwards but he sidefooted over the bar.
The Dutchman more than made up for that miss late on. He waltzed through in the 85th minute and planted home a cross-shot then almost immediately he tapped in Arsenal's fifth from close range.
At the death, Fabregas beat Robbie Savage by the corner flag and set up Flamini for a sixth.
Finally Arsenal were assured of a Happy Christmas.
- Silva Goal!
- Hleb 88 Goal! Yellow Card
- Rosicky 71
- Adebayor 89 Goal! Yellow Card
- van Persie Goal! Goal! Yellow Card
- Walcott 88
- Julio Baptista 89
- Flamini 71 Goal!
- Gray 63
- Neill Yellow Card
- Emerton Yellow Card
- Savage Yellow Card
- Nonda Goal! Goal!
- Derbyshire 63