By Richard Clarke
Mikael Silvestre grabbed the all-important goal in his first game for three months as Arsenal came from behind to record a crucial 4-1 win at Wigan on Saturday.
When the Frenchman came off the bench in the 35th minute for the injured Johan Djourou, the visitors were struggling.
They trailed to Mido’s early goal and had barely found their rhythm at all. Matters nearly got much worse on the stroke of half time but Kieran Gibbs escaped with a yellow card after hauling down Antonio Valencia when the midfielder seemed clear.
However Theo Walcott fired Arsenal level just past the hour and then Silvestre popped up to secure the points in the 71st minute.
Andrey Arshavin and Alex Song added goals in the final minutes to give the scoreline a gloss the visitors perhaps did not deserve.
Wigan had played well for an hour of this game but, one thing is for sure, when they gave Arsenal the merest glimmer of a way back into the game they were made to pay.
With an ongoing run of 18 Premier League games behind them and fourth place looking nearly assured, Wenger’s ruthless side now have silverware on the their mind.
Wenger’s rotation was understandable given their massive games this week. In all there were five changes. Three were enforced after Manuel Almunia (ankle), William Gallas (knee) and Gael Clichy (back) had collected injuries at Villarreal on Wednesday.
But the demotion to the bench of Samir Nasri and, especially after the quality of his midweek goal, Emmanuel Adebayor were surely down to the rigours of the fixtures to come.
The quintet coming in were Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou, Gibbs, Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner.
Almunia was missing his first Premier League game of the season and Gibbs was making his full debut in the competition.
Arsenal had been looking omnipotent in recent weeks. Their only defeat since December 10 had come at Roma when in fact Wenger’s men went through on penalties. A place in the Champions League Semi-Finals and the FA Cup Final were certainly on offer this week. Three points here would also make fourth spot in the Premier League even more likely.
However Arsenal would struggle in the first half. They would lose a goal and a player before the interval against a highly committed Wigan side.
Gibbs fired wide early on but, in the ninth minute, Valencia escaped from the left back near the byline and Arsenal were thankful that Denilson intercepted his low ball into the area.
Wigan were looking strong and determined.
Opportunities were at a premium in the opening quarter but the half-chances that were created went the way of the home side.
The opening goal would come in the 18th minute.
Denilson was adjudged to have handled the ball 30 yards out. Mido went for goal from the free kick but the wall deflected it wide for a corner.
Ben Watson floated that to the far post where he found Paul Scharner. His header down was not dealt with by the Arsenal defence and Mido hooked the ball home at the far post. A poor goal to concede.
Arsenal’s response was positive. Gibbs crossed for Bendtner to flick a header wide, Fabregas also went got a shot away after a slick move.
However Wigan are a tough, technical and organised unit this season. They started to earn their lead via a mixture of perspiration and pressure.
Arsenal’s cause suffered a further blow when Djourou went off in the 35th minute with what appeared to be a knee injury. Silvestre came on for his first appearance since the FA Cup tie Plymouth on January 3.
Arsenal were below par and Wigan were not allowing them to treat this game as the “extra fixture” surrounded by major matches in the Champions League and FA Cup.
The final incident of the half illustrated this perfectly. Valencia pressured Gibbs into a poor header as the pair chased a long ball forward. The Wigan midfielder nipped in front and the Arsenal youngster brought him down just outside the D.
The home support howled for a red card from referee Alan Wiley as Valencia had looked clear. Only the close proximity of Silvestre can have saved him.
Watson curled the free-kick against the inside of the post. The ball bounced out to Scharner, whose follow-up was blocked.
As at Villarreal in midweek, Arsenal went into the break thankful to be only 1-0 down.
There was little change after the re-start. Eight minutes in, confusion between Silvestre and Fabianski saw Mido lift his header over the keeper and towards the unguarded net. Gibbs raced back to shepherd the ball off the line.
Mido hurt himself in that move and hobbled off a couple of minutes later. The Egyptian had been a thorn in Arsenal’s side all afternoon. His departure was a help.
Just before the hour Emmerson Boyce blocked from Bendtner at the near post after Sagna had stolen the ball by the corner flag.
Then, in the 61st minute, came the equaliser. Arshavin wriggled through on the edge of the area and, grounded, he steered the ball to Walcott who fired home his fourth goal of the season. The entire Wigan defence looked at the assistant referee for an offside flag. But he indicated that a defender on the far side was playing the England winger onside.
The game had changed in an instant. Wenger brought on Van Persie and Adebayor for Denilson and Walcott in order to push for a goal.
It arrived 19 minutes from time when Fabregas received the ball on the left and slid a simple ball into the area. Silvestre arrived on cue to turn the ball home from six yards out.
Arsenal were now a different team. So were Wigan.
The visitors nearly got a third in the 76th minute when Arshavin’s low drive was deflected onto the inside of the post. The ball came out to Van Persie who planted the ball home adroitly however the Dutchman had strayed offside.
Arshavin profited from slack Wigan defending to add a third on the whistle then Alex Song gleefully added a fourth.
Tough on Wigan but great for Arsenal. Wenger’s side are a steamroller at the moment and Steve Bruce’s team had simply got stuck in their way this afternoon.
- Gibbs Yellow Card
- Djourou 35
- Denilson 61
- Song Goal! Yellow Card
- Walcott 67 Goal!
- Fabregas (C)
- Arshavin Goal!
- Silvestre 35 Goal!
- van Persie 61 Yellow Card
- Adebayor 67
- Bramble Yellow Card
- Boyce Yellow Card
- Melchiot (C)
- Watson 84
- Brown 80 Yellow Card
- Mido 56 Goal!
- De Ridder 80
- Kapo 56
- Koumas 84