By Richard Clarke
Substitute Nicklas Bendtner ended Arsenal’s frosty frustration with an 84th-minute winner at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
All afternoon Arsène Wenger’s side had banged on Bolton’s back door – but it remained stubbornly shut.
Gary Megson’s injury-hit outfit arrived with only four substitutes in his squad, so perhaps you can forgive the visitors’ reluctance to break out of their defensive shackles.
Arsenal had all the possession and all the chances – most notably when Robin van Persie hit the post midway through the second half – but Bolton would not be budged.
That was until six minutes from time. Gael Clichy’s perception freed the Dutchman on the left and his far-post cross was converted by the sliding Bendtner. It was beautiful end to an ugly game – but was enough for Arsenal.
Once again, 1-0 is peculiarly satisfying scoreline for Wenger’s men at the moment. They are now unbeaten in six Premier League games and half of those have home victories by a single goal. They have helped the team stay on the coat-tails of the title race.
Gradually, Arsenal are grinding their way back into form.
Wenger changed half his side for their first Premier League fixture of 2009.
William Gallas (hamstring) and Mikael Silvestre (thigh) were injured while Nicklas Bendtner, Lukasz Fabianski and Aaron Ramsey dropped to the bench. Their replacements were Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Denilson, Kolo Toure and Manuel Almunia.
Bolton were without three of the players most responsible for their relative success this season – Kevin Nolan (suspension), Gretar Steinsson (suspension) and Gary Cahill (back). Partly as a result of that, manager Megson named only four substitutes. One was nearly used before kick-off with rumours running around the press box that keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen had injured himself in the warm-up. They turned out to be false.
England was in the midst of a cold snap. The overnight frost had put paid to the Premier League fixtures at Portsmouth and Fulham. That was never going to happen with the undersoil heating at Emirates Stadium but it was a bitterly cold afternoon in North London and the spectators were not afforded the same luxury as the pitch. It was hat, coat, gloves, scarf and thermal long-johns weather.
Bolton’s billing as Arsenal’s nightmare had become a bit of a misnomer in recent years. Wenger’s men had won the last five Premier League fixtures between the pair and the Lancashire side had not tasted victory in this part of the capital for 47 years.
Bolton’s attitude in the opening stages did nothing to suggest that would change. The visitors seemed happy to sit back and afford the home side enough space to set up camp just outside their area.
It was a dangerous tactic and Van Persie would profit with a couple of early opportunities – a snap shot on the turn from Samir Nasri’s pacy pass and a header that stretched Jaaskelainen.
The Frenchman then fired over himself and Van Persie had justifiable claims for a penalty in the 19th minute when a grounded Jlloyd Samuel appeared to nudge the ball with his arm.
Arsenal were keeping up the pressure but not doing that much with it. You felt that although it was one-way traffic, the cars just were not moving very fast.
Just to add to the surreal feeling, some of the floodlights failed midway through the half. Fortunately, there was enough daylight to carry on and the problem was rectified quickly.
Adebayor’s right-wing cross was nodded out by Danny Shittu and Van Persie volleyed over from the edge of the area. Clichy even had a dig from distance.
Bolton lost in-form striker Johan Elmander eight minutes before the break. Mustapha Riga came on but the change left Kevin Davies ploughing a lonely furrow up front.
Still, at the break, Bolton were in possession of the point they had clearly come for. It was Arsenal’s job to break them down and they had got nowhere near to achieving it in the first 45 minutes.
The home fans did their best to rouse the team at the start of the second half. They cheered optimistically for handball when Samuel chested down a left-wing cross but held their breath when Matt Taylor guided a header towards the far post. Fortunately Almunia held on.
As the game passed the hour mark, Arsenal were losing their momentum. Therefore it was no surprise to see substitute Carlos Vela, the catalyst for change against Portsmouth, replace Diaby.
Just before the change, Adebayor had seen a swivelling shot saved by Jaaskelainen. Just after it, he would spurn the chance of the match. Vela worked the ball in-field and Nasri threaded an expert ball to the far side of the area where the unmarked striker collected. He had time to steady himself but he took too long. By the time he got his shot off, Andy O’Brien had sprinted across. His outstretched leg stopped a near-certain goal.
The chance served to spur on Arsenal. Bolton had enjoyed a small pocket of possession at the start of the half but that was long gone now. The home side were now hogging the ball and peppering the Bolton area with chances.
In the 70th minute, Adebayor set up Van Persie on the edge of the box. The Dutchman shimmied past a couple of defenders and poked a shot past a static Jaaskelainen. Agonisingly, the bobbling ball bounced back off the post and Denilson’s follow-up was blocked.
A couple of minutes later, Toure’s long-range effort forced a sprawling save from the Bolton keeper.
Bendtner came off the bench and nearly powered home Nasri’s free-kick with his first touch. Unfortunately the ball nestled in Jaaskelainen’s midriff.
The Dane was also denied eight minutes from time following a marauding run up the right wing by Toure.
Bendtner would not be denied a third time and relief was palpable when he slid home Van Persie’s shot.
But Bolton responded with their best chance of the game when Chris Basham set up Davies. Fortunately Almunia held on.
A welcome whistle rang out a couple of minutes later.
- Djourou Yellow Card
- Diaby 63
- Eboue 75
- Adebayor 88
- van Persie
- Ramsey 88 Yellow Card
- Bendtner 75 Goal!
- Vela 63
- McCann Yellow Card
- Elmander 39
- Riga 78 39 Yellow Card
- Obadeyi 78