By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are top of the Premier League.
Arsène Wenger's side produced a stunning four-goal comeback to beat Bolton at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday and overtake Chelsea by virtue of goals scored.
In the build-up to the game, the manager had charged his side with task of going top but, after 28 minutes of this pulsating affair, that dream was in tatters.
Bolton took a shock lead in the seventh minute when Gary Cahill struck from close range. Just before the half-hour, Denilson fouled Chung-Yong Lee and Matthew Taylor squeezed home a penalty.
Tomas Rosicky tossed Wenger's off-kilter side a lifeline with a long-range drive just before half time. But, after the restart, the home team were irresistible.
This was storming, storming Arsenal.
Seven minutes in, Cesc Fabregas burst through and steered home shot from an acute angle then, just before the hour, Thomas Vermaelen lashed home a loose ball after a corner.
It seemed that would be that and, frankly, most of us would have settled for it.
However five minutes from time, Andrey Arshavin bulldozered through the Bolton defence to fire home that crucial fourth.
Of course, in itself, this table means nothing. The last time Arsenal were top, on August 28, it was worth little either. Standings only lead to silverware in May.
But it does show Wenger's men are cast-iron contenders - strong in mind and body. These back-to-back games with Bolton have been mighty tough but Arsenal have come through.
Going top means they are now there to be shot at themselves of course. However, if tonight is anything to go by, this side is armour-plated.
Before kick-off, Wenger's only changes saw him bring in experience for youth. From Sunday's side, Craig Eastmond and Armand Traore dropped out; Denilson and Gael Clichy came in. It was the Frenchman's first start since the 3-0 victory over Tottenham on October 31.
Theo Walcott was named in the squad for the first time since December 27 but he only made the bench.
Bolton's main change was a surprise. Despite a lively game on Sunday, Ivan Klasnic dropped to the bench.
There was a strange lethargy about the Emirates Stadium early on. Transport delays meant the ground filled up late and there was little buzz just before kick-off.
Arsenal's start was entirely in keeping with that. Yes, early efforts from Abou Diaby and Arshavin warmed the hands of Jussi Jaaskelainen early on but the saves were pretty regulation.
Bolton, meanwhile, had purpose. They clearly fancied the task tonight and their industry got them a goal in the seventh minute.
Arsenal had a couple of chances to clear a left-wing free-kick. From the second, Clichy skied his attempted clearance and Kevin Davies' nodded the ball down for Cahill to sweep home. A poor, poor goal to concede.
The home side were utterly stung. They were in danger of turning down an open invitation to go top.
In fairness, Cahill's goal woke them up. It was about time. In the 12th minute Rosicky's touch sent Cesc Fabregas clear on the left of the area and, as Bolton appealed for offside, the Spaniard's bounced a shot off Jaaskelainen when he should have scored.
Two minutes later, Diaby sent a raking ball to Eduardo just outside the area. With few outlets the Croatian went for what ice-hockey fans would call a slap-shot. It flew inches over the bar.
While Arsenal had yet to find their composure they had at least created a head of steam. In the minutes that followed Arshavin bobbled a shot just wide and Zat Knight sent a hurried clearing header inches over his own bar.
But, as on Sunday, the first half was open, exciting and attacking with Bolton playing a full part.
In the 16th minute, Vermaelen fouled Davies and Taylor's free-kick fully extended Almunia.
That duel would be repeated 11 minutes later. Again Bolton were afforded too much space in the area and Denilson brought down Chung-Yong Lee. A crystal clear penalty.
Almunia guessed correctly when Taylor stepped up to take the spot-kick however the ball still found a way into the corner.
It was looking bleak for Arsenal but, on the upside, they were certainly creating clear enough chances to get themselves back in the game.
In the 36th minute, Fabregas' meandered through most of the Bolton midfield before setting up Eduardo 10 yards out. The stumbling Croatian tried to steer the ball into the far corner but his effort lacked the strength to beat Jaaskelainen.
Five minutes from the break, Fabregas scooped a free-kick into the area and, off-balance, Davies nodded the ball against his own bar.
It was turning into a curious game. Arsenal were far from fluent and trailing 2-0 but they could have scored four themselves by this point.
At least, when they did get on the scoresheet, it was a goal of quality. Fabregas, as ever, was the instigator, darting inside his marker and feeding the ball out to Rosicky on the right. The Czech midfielder was 30 yards out and tightly marked. But showing exquisite balance he jinked some space and lashed home a rocket of shot.
Emirates ignited, the game was alive. Arsenal poured forward until the whistle but could not find an equaliser.
The impetus was still with them when the game restarted. Bolton had a few minutes of early pressure but Arsenal had retained all the urgency created from Rosicky's rocket.
Seven minutes after the break, they found an equaliser.
As he has done so often in recent weeks, Gallas stormed forward to supplement to the attack. The Frenchman's challenge on Mark Davies won the ball but left the Bolton midfielder in a heap. Gallas played on and eventually Fabregas bundled his way inside the six-yard box before sliding an angled shot through the legs of Jaaskelainen and into the far corner.
While Arsenal celebrated, the keeper raced to the referee to protest. Gallas had appeared to tread on Davies' ankle and, after lengthy treatment, the youngster was carried off.
The home side now had the bit between their teeth. Fabregas crashed an effort inches over the bar and, in the 65th minute, their comeback proved irresistible.
Fabregas floated over a corner from the right and Vermaelen's high, hanging header was touched back into the Belgian's path by Diaby. The centre half swung a determined foot at the ball from 10 yards out. His contact was not perfect but he was so close to goal that the sliced shot bounced off the inside of the far post and flew into the net.
It was Vermaelen's sixth goal of the season and undoubtedly the most important.
Having worked so hard to get the lead you could understand Arsenal easing off the gas a little.
It seemed for a while that this tall tale would not have its happy ending.
However five minutes from time Arshavin withstood a couple of half-hearted Bolton challenges to fire home the fourth.
In the dying seconds, the Russian should have made it five but he spurned the support of substitute Theo Walcott to go for goal alone. It was a rare wrong move for Arsenal in the second half.
The home fans left Emirates Stadium singing ‘we are top of the League'.
Of course they were right but their team had taken them on one hell of a journey to get there this evening.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Fabregas (C) Goal!
- Rosicky 88 Goal!
- Diaby 76
- Eduardo 90
- Arshavin Goal!
- Eastmond 76
- Vela 88
- Walcott 90
- Cahill Goal!
- Robinson 90
- Davies 56
- Muamba Yellow Card
- Taylor Goal!
- Lee 81
- Davies (C)
- McCann 56 Yellow Card
- Ricketts 90
- Klasnic 81