By Richard Clarke
Arsenal twice came from behind to beat Blackburn 6-2 in an incredible game at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Steven Nzonzi nodded the visitors in front after just four minutes but top-scorer Thomas Vermaelen levelled just past the quarter-hour with a thumping effort from distance.
When David Dunn saw a shot deflected home after 30 minutes you might have thought this would not be Arsenal's day. But with Cesc Fabregas running matters in midfield, Arsène Wenger's side stormed back. The Spaniard set up goals for Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin before half-time then grabbed one himself on the hour.
Those last two goals will give much-needed confidence to their scorer, while the manner of this victory will do likewise for the team.
Arsenal were unlucky today and still came back to crush the opposition.
Wenger has long talked about the character of his young side. On the strength of this performance you can only believe him.
Clearly, this game was an opportunity for Arsenal. Manchester United had dropped two points on Saturday while one, or both, of Liverpool and Chelsea would do the same when they met at Stamford Bridge later today.
Pre-match, Wenger had been saying home form would define his side's season so this was a chance to push ahead.
The manager made just one change from the side that had eventually beaten Olympiacos on Tuesday. Emmanuel Eboue dropped to the bench and Bacary Sagna came in at right back. Walcott was included in the squad after recovering from a back injury. However the England international only made the bench.
Blackburn had not won at Arsenal in seven years and had suffered defeat in both of their games on the road this season. Meanwhile Wenger's side had not conceded a goal since Milan Jovanovic had tucked away that early penalty at Standard Liege - almost six hours of football ago.
It is fair to say, therefore, that Blackburn fourth-minute opener goal was a shock.
Keeper Paul Robinson hacked a free-kick from his own half into the heart of the Arsenal area. Nzonzi leapt above Vermaelen to send a backheader towards goal. It drifted over Vito Mannone and kissed the crossbar as it dropped into the net.
It was a stultifying start for Arsenal but they quickly recovered.
In the 10th minute, Arshavin crossed from the right, the stretching Fabregas spiralled a header on to the top of the bar and Pascal Chimbonda booted the loose ball away from danger. Seconds later, Arshavin fired a probing ball across the face of the Blackburn goal.
Arsenal were banging on Blackburn's back door and the visitors were worried. Keith Andrews accidentally nodded a Fabregas corner just beyond the far post then, after 17 minutes, came the equaliser.
The Premier League is starting to know all about Vermaelen's scoring prowess. He came into this game with four goals - the most of any Arsenal player. However only his second strike against Wigan had been anything but ‘a defender's goal' - i.e. a header or a scrambled effort from close-range. Against the Latics he had thumped a shot into the top corner from the edge of the area. His effort this afternoon was even better.
Collecting the ball fully 30 yards out, he crashed a low shot beyond Robinson and into the bottom left-hand corner.
Even the watching Thierry Henry clapped that one and he knows a thing or two about the goal-scorer's art.
Arsenal now had their hand on the tiller and set about steering a course to victory. They seemed determined to test Robinson from distance. Fabregas tried his luck from 25 yards and, after getting a hand to the initial effort, the keeper recovered to foil Van Persie as the Dutchman attempted to follow up.
The former England No 1 was starting to become over-worked. Diaby flicked Fabregas free in the left-hand channel but Robinson pawed away his curler towards the far post.
Arsenal seemed set to kick-on and perhaps it was their eagerness that gave Blackburn room for the second. But there was still a hefty slice of luck involved. The visitors broke quickly and Dunn found himself with the ball at his feet on the left of the area. With Gallas covering there seemed little way through but the Englishman had a go. The ball brushed the Frenchman's thigh and wrong-footed Mannone at the near post.
Blackburn seemed to have 11 players and fate on their side this afternoon. But Arsenal were the superior operation so they could fight back even though they were outnumbered.
It took them two minutes to get on level terms. Fabregas threaded a ball between centre back and full back for Van Persie to fire home.
Eight minutes from the break, Arsenal finally took the lead with a similar goal. Again the supplier was Fabregas and again the goal was scored from the left-hand channel. Only this time it was converted by Arshavin.
On the stroke of half-time, Robinson defied Fabregas at the far post. It had been a mad first half and frankly a defender's nightmare.
Often this sort of game calms down after the break - this one did not.
Blackburn claimed a penalty in the opening minutes when Dunn danced through and fell under a challenge from Vermaelen.
In the 49th minute, Arsenal half-cleared a free-kick and Martin Olsson, up from left back, crashed a volley towards the top right-hand corner of the net. Mannone leapt to his left to beat the ball away.
It would have been the highlight of many a game - but it was well down the pecking order in this one.
Van Persie nearly scrambled home a goal from close-range then, Fabregas, who had done everything but score this afternoon, managed to register himself.
The captain's attempted pass came back to him so he looked up, saw an opportunity and then grabbed it. From just outside the area, he lifted a shot over the Blackburn defence and past the statuesque Robinson.
Finally Arsenal had breathing space. Rosicky rocketed a shot past the angle of post and bar then, after Walcott had come on, Abou Diaby scuttled an effort beyond the far post.
In-between those chances Blackburn might have got back into the game when substitute David Hoilett hooked an effort against the post with Mannone beaten.
Blackburn were pushing forward and, perversely, it helped Arsenal get their fifth in the 75th minute. Clichy won the ball on his own byline and Fabregas stabbed the ball to Arshavin on the left. The Russian ran half the length of the pitch before returning the favour to his captain. Fabregas swept the ball on to Walcott, who buried a low cross-shot.
With Blackburn finally beaten, Wenger took off Fabregas and Arshavin. But the chances still came.
One of the replacements, Bendtner, had a point-blank effort blocked by Robinson. Then Walcott prodded a shot past the keeper but Chimbonda roared back to boot the ball off the line.
In the 89th minute, Bendtner arrowed home an effort from outside the area. It was only the Dane's second goal of the season and his celebration suggested it meant a lot.
This was a pretty much perfect day for Arsenal with players coming back from injury and others registering important goals.
It was also a significant mental test for Wenger's men and they passed with flying colours.
Everything that happened today augurs well for the season to come.
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Fabregas (C) 76 Goal!
- Arshavin 76 Goal!
- Rosicky 69
- van Persie Goal! Yellow Card
- Ramsey 76
- Walcott 69 Goal!
- Bendtner 76 Goal!
- Robinson (C)
- Nzonzi Goal!
- Dunn 62 Goal!
- Emerton 55
- Di Santo Yellow Card
- Pedersen 55
- McCarthy 69 62
- Hoilett 69
- Nikola Kalinic