By Chris Harris
Remember when Arsenal were accused of being unable to win in the North-West? These days they can win there with 10 men.
A performance brimming with class and character saw off Blackburn despite a red card for Gilberto after just 12 minutes at Ewood Park. Many teams would have buckled under those circumstances but Arsenal rolled up their sleeves, stayed true to their footballing principles and ran out worthy winners.
Kolo Toure nodded them ahead nine minutes before the break and Thierry Henry secured the points with a vicious strike 19 minutes from time. Rovers had their chances but they could hardly complain about the result. Arsenal were up against it all day but conjured their third win in eight days in this part of the country and their fifth victory in seven North-West trips this season.
More importantly, Arsenal's gutsy win takes them up to fourth in the Premiership, a point behind Liverpool and two ahead of Bolton. They remain well on course for a Champions League place.
Arsène Wenger made eight changes to the side which won that astonishing Carling Cup tie at Anfield on Tuesday night with only Cesc Fabregas, Toure and Justin Hoyte keeping their places. Julio Baptista, scorer of four goals in the 6-3 win against Liverpool, dropped to the bench. He was joined on the sidelines by Emmanuel Adebayor, back after a thigh injury.
A gusting wind was always likely to make conditions difficult at Ewood Park but, as kick-off approached, driving rain made it even more unpalatable. It certainly affected the opening stages as both sides struggled to find their rhythm.
Rovers were first to show, Lucas Neill finding space on the left after eight minutes and sending in a cross which skimmed off Hoyte's head and flew precariously close to Jens Lehmann's upright before going behind for a corner. Morten Gamst Pedersen delivered a teasing ball from the right but Matt Derbyshire, unmarked at the far post, failed to direct his header on goal.
Arsenal had barely got going when they were reduced to 10 men. Robbie Savage hacked away at Gilberto as he shielded the ball and fouled the Brazilian again for good measure. Gilberto span around angrily and kicked out a leg, Savage fell to the ground in a crumpled heap and Rob Styles dusted off his red card. A yellow for both men would have been fairer.
Mathieu Flamini started warming up and it seemed odds-on that he would replace either Henry or Robin van Persie. Wenger had other ideas. Perhaps wary of conceding the initiative so early in the game he moved Tomas Rosicky inside to partner Fabregas and kept two up front. It was a brave move and it certainly paid off.
Blackburn, despite their man advantage, were rather tentative. Pedersen forced Lehmann into one smart tip-over with a fierce drive after Brett Emerton had drifted in from the right and found the Norwegian in space just inside the area. Other than that, Rovers offered little going forward before the break.
Not so Arsenal. Despite the loss of Gilberto, they kept the ball well. And nine minutes before the interval they broke the deadlock. Henry flighted in a free kick from a central position 40 yards from goal, Toure stole in front of his marker and his powerful header bounced in off the post past a static Brad Friedel.
Savage's header a yard wide was the closest Blackburn came to equalising before half time and, as expected, their manager made changes at the break. Mark Hughes took off Aaron Mokoena and brought on Tugay. Surely the Turkish playmaker would open up this resolute Arsenal side?
For a while nothing changed, although Benni McCarthy fired into the side-netting just before the hour after looking suspiciously offside when he received the ball inside the box. Shabani Nonda, scorer of two goals at Emirates Stadium last month, came on to add ballast to Blackburn's attack but he could only head wide after a decent cross from Pedersen.
Rovers tried to crank up the pressure and Derbyshire scuffed a gilt-edged chance at the far post after Neill had worked his way to the byline on the left. It was a miss Derbyshire and Rovers would rue.
Flamini had just replaced Van Persie, a hint that Arsenal were going to shut up shop, when the visitors doubled their lead in style. Henry took the ball down the left flank, hugging the touchline. He played it inside to Fabregas and continued his run to receive the Spaniard's return pass 20 yards out and slightly left of centre. Without breaking stride, the Arsenal captain flashed a shot into the top corner. Friedel got a fingertip to the ball but it wasn't enough to deny Henry another classic to add to his portfolio.
Rovers were stunned. Henry could have wrapped up the points a few minutes later but, after controlling Rosicky's flighted pass from the right, he fired over the bar. It didn't make any difference. Arsenal held on to record a victory that owed as much to graft as it did to craft.
- Toure Goal!
- Fabregas 89
- Silva Red Card
- Henry 79 Goal!
- Persie 67
- Djourou 89
- Flamini 67
- Adebayor 79
- Ooijer 58
- Neill Yellow Card
- Mokoena 45 Yellow Card
- Savage Yellow Card
- Kerimoglu 45 Yellow Card
- Nonda 58