By Richard Clarke
Theo Walcott scored the all-important goal as Arsenal beat Burnley 3-1 at Emirates Stadium on Saturday to draw level on points with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table.
Cesc Fabregas fired the home side into a first-half lead but then hobbled off before the break. As a result his participation against Porto on Tuesday night may be in the balance.
However Arsenal kept their composure and should have seen off the Turf Moor team long before they equalised through David Nugent five minutes after half-time.
Walcott, who had come under fire for his England performance in midweek, gave the home side the lead 10 minutes later with a classy finish. Arsenal created a barrel-load of chances all afternoon but they only felt truly comfortable when substitute Andrey Arshavin fired home in injury time.
Like last week, this was a vital win tainted by an important injury.
However Arsenal's title bid remains on target.
It was almost a week since Aaron Ramsey had broken his leg but the issue was clearly still lodged deep in Arsenal hearts. The side came out with "Get Well Soon Aaron" on specially-made T-shirts meanwhile a banner in the crowd urged the players to "Do it for Rambo".
The absence of Ramsey and the suspension of Alex Song had created vacancies in midfield. The fit-again Denilson (calf) came in for the Cameroon international while Samir Nasri was moved into the centre to replace Ramsey. Tomas Rosicky returned on the left.
Sol Campbell (groin) was switched for Mikael Silvestre at centre half meanwhile there was rotation at right back with Bacary Sagna dropping out and Emmanuel Eboue dropping back. Walcott also came back into the side.
Before that furious fallout had drawn the all the back page headlines, Arsenal had actually won a vital football match last Saturday. The visit to Stoke was seen as one of the toughest of the remaining fixtures and Wenger's men had come through at the death.
A four-goal win would put Arsenal top at the final whistle today. But any kind of victory would do. The title race was entering its final quarter and Wenger's side had a strong a case as anyone.
They certainly started this game as if they meant business.
In the opening minutes, Fabregas prodded Bendtner clear. However the Dane was under pressure and his shot was deflected wide. From the corner resulting corner Rosicky drifted a volley just wide.
Although Clarke Carlisle's header tested Manuel Almunia in response, Arsenal's start had been as bright as the watery sunshine around Emirates Stadium this afternoon. And once again, Walcott was a livewire on the right.
In fact that flank was Arsenal's best outlet in the opening stages. After 14 minutes, Eboue's elaborate backheel allowed Fabregas to fire across the face of goal.
It seemed that the home side would take over but they didn't. In fact Burnley troubled Almunia a couple of times from distance through Daniel Fox and Martin Paterson.
The second of those efforts came after a long delay after Nasri collided with Burnley keeper Brian Jensen. The Frenchman would recover and, in the 34th minute, supply the opening goal.
Faced with the massed ranks of the Burnley defence, the former Marseilles man chipped through an expert pass for Fabregas to collect. The captain timed his run to perfection and volleyed home adroitly. The Spaniard's goal ratio is now better than one goal every two games this season.
It should have 2-0 a minute later. Fabregas slid a pass to Eboue who was overlapping on the right. He cut the ball back but the sliding Bendtner skewed the ball wide.
It would be the last contribution Fabregas made this afternoon. He pulled up shortly afterwards and was replaced by Abou Diaby. With Porto arriving on Tuesday for a knife-edge Champions League tie, Wenger will be a worried man during the next couple of days.
The loss effected Arsenal until the break but they were renewed after it. Again Walcott was the architect.
First he sent over a deep cross that an unmarked Bendtner nodded wide from eight yards out. Then the England man raced into space and fired inches over the bar.
Arsenal's second seemed to be minutes away so Burnley's equaliser was nothing short of a shock. The home side cleared a corner and Leon Cort's long, bouncing header somehow found Nugent in the area. The ex-England striker flicked a shot over Almunia and into the net. Except for a pocket of Burnley fans in one corner, Emirates was aghast.
Walcott was still Arsenal's best option and he did his best to remedy the situation. First he set up Bendtner then he tried himself only for Jensen to turn the ball wide.
On the hour, he finally found the net.
Bendtner nudged a pass to Walcott on the right. The 20-year-old cut inside Fox and fired a low, left-foot shot into the far corner. It might have been only his second goal of the season but the strike smacked of class.
Arsenal immediately went in search of another. They clearly did not want to be caught out once again.
Andrey Arshavin, who had replaced Rosicky, fired wide. Meanwhile Bendtner seemed to have embarked on his own individual crusade for a goal. The Dane was having a hit-and-miss afternoon but his tenacity was admirable.
He should have scored at the far post from Walcott's low cross but could only fire wide. Then he chased down is own mistake and eventually thumped a rising shot in the arms of Jensen.
When he was replaced by Eduardo with 15 minutes left, Bendtner got a rousing reception.
The Croatian should have killed the game with 12 minutes left but, from another Walcott cross, he nudged the ball beyond the far post.
The narrowness of the lead fired Burnley's optimism in the latter stages. They kept going and stretched the Arsenal defence at times, however Almunia was only troubled once.
In the dying minutes, Fox fired over the corner and the keeper's punch fell to Steven Thompson who fired over the bar. A massive opportunity.
Arsenal were still creating, and missing their own. Seconds later Arshavin sidefooted wide. In injury time, the Russian finally ended the argument with a low drive.
- Walcott Goal!
- Rosicky 61
- Fabregas 39 Goal!
- Bendtner 73
- Diaby 39
- Arshavin 61 Goal!
- Eduardo 73
- Carlisle Yellow Card
- Alexander 66
- McDonald 54 Yellow Card
- Paterson 73 Yellow Card
- Nugent Goal!
- Bikey 66
- Elliott 54 Yellow Card
- Thompson 73