By Chris Harris
Arsenal slipped up on another Premier League banana skin as a rollicking game at the Riverside failed to produce the right result for Arsène Wenger's team.
Emmanuel Adebayor headed the visitors into a 16th-minute lead from Cesc Fabregas' corner but former Gunner Jeremie Aliadiere nodded past Manuel Almunia 12 minutes later to peg his old club back. Arsenal pressed for a winner and forced Middlesbrough back after the break, but the closest they came was Robin van Persie's low shot which trickled just wide of the post and Nicklas Bendtner's rasping drive which Ross Turnbull pushed away.
A point is better than nothing and it cuts the gap between Arsenal and the leaders Liverpool to seven points - for a few hours at least. But draws are almost as damaging as defeats when you are that far adrift in the title race.
Wenger's side will have to pull another big performance - and a big result - out of the hat when Liverpool visit Emirates Stadium in eight days' time.
As expected, five of the nine players who sat out the Porto game returned to the starting line-up at the Riverside - Gael Clichy (hamstring), Fabregas (knee), Van Persie (thigh), Bacary Sagna (flu) and Adebayor (rested). Lining up alongside them was a familiar face in Aliadiere. Unfortunately, a knee injury denied right back Justin Hoyte the chance to face the club he left in the summer.
You can certainly see similarities between Boro and Arsenal. Like Wenger, their impressive young manager Gareth Southgate is a purveyor of slick, pacy counter-attacking football. Like Wenger, he invests in youth - both men's last Premier League squads featured nine players who were with their club as teenagers. Southgate did of course get one over on Wenger in the corresponding fixture last season but perhaps this was a good time to play Boro. They had not won in four League matches and had taken just two out of nine points at home since the end of October.
Arsenal's own problems centred on their preparations. The decision to bring forward the kick-off time for television purposes meant that Wenger's side would be lining up in the North-East of England just 63 hours after walking off a pitch in Portugal. To make matters worse, the conditions could not have been less welcoming. An icy wind and driving rain under slate-grey skies was weather to hunch your shoulders to. On the pitch, you sensed Arsenal would need to flex their muscles to keep in touch in the title race.
Johan Djourou showed Arsenal were up for the fight with a crunching challenge inside the first 90 seconds and that set the tone for a high-octane opening in which the home side forced three corners. One was claimed confidently by Manuel Almunia, one was flicked just over his own crossbar by Adebayor and the third was volleyed wastefully over by Adam Johnson from eight yards.
But Arsenal weathered the early storm and, after 10 minutes, crafted a sweeping move which so nearly led to the first goal. Adebayor, Abou Diaby and Fabregas linked up superbly in midfield and the latter found Van Persie just inside the area. The Dutchman's first-time effort rolled just wide. Arsenal pressed on and Adebayor slalomed past two challenges before setting up Diaby for a low effort which Ross Turnbull blocked at his near post. It was a brief respite for Boro as Fabregas swung in the resulting corner and Adebayor directed a simple header past the keeper from six yards.
Boro responded with a couple of pot-shots from Aliadiere and Tuncay but the game looked there for the taking from Arsenal's perspective, especially when Diaby shot straight at Turnbull after another Fabregas corner had caused consternation in the Boro box. Instead, the visitors found themselves pegged back just before the half-hour. Boro's equaliser came from nothing really as Clichy's attempted clearance ricocheted to Tuncay, he fired in a cross and Aliadiere - who else? - nodded past Almunia.
Suddenly it was Arsenal on the back foot: Johnson had a loud penalty claim turned down while Djourou and William Gallas found themselves under sustained pressure. But, as the game ebbed and flowed, Fabregas played Adebayor through on the right and the striker's cross flashed past Van Persie before he could adjust his feet. Fabregas himself fired over towards the end of a pulsating first half.
Carelessness crept in on both sides immediately after the break but the tempo showed no sign of abating. Clichy got forward to test Turnbull from the corner of the box after 55 minutes while, at the other end, Aliadiere's pace kept Djourou and Gallas on their guard. Almunia had to be alert, too, when Julio Arca curved a pass into Stewart Downing's path. The England winger beat Gallas to the ball and forced a fine one-handed stop from the Arsenal keeper at his near post.
Van Persie was the next to go close, sliding a low shot wide from a narrow angle after Diaby had picked out the Dutchman's intelligent diagonal run inside the box. Then Fabregas jinked past two challenges and played in Adebayor, whose left-footed effort deflected just past the angle of post and crossbar. Arsenal were getting closer and, by now, were pretty much camped in the Boro half as the hosts defended deep and relied on the counter-attack.
Time was ebbing away but there was still hope - after all, no team has conceded more goals in the final 10 minutes than Boro this season. But Arsenal could not exploit their hosts' late vulnerability as Van Persie fired over from 25 yards, Denilson's effort was blocked after a scramble in the Boro penalty area and substitute Bendtner forced a smart stop from Turnbull.
Arsenal deserved more. Instead, they will be back in 'must-win' territory when they next take to the field in the Premier League.
- Diaby 82 Yellow Card
- Adebayor Goal!
- Bendtner 82
- Johnson 90
- Digard 89
- Aliadiere Goal!
- Shawky 89
- Emnes 90