By Richard Clarke
Ten-man Arsenal went the top of the Premier League table with a tense 2-0 win over West Ham on Saturday evening.
There seemed little problem for almost the entire first half. Denilson fired home after just five minutes and the home side went on to produce a regal display.
However a minute before the break the game changed when Thomas Vermaelen was sent off after conceding a controversial penalty. It was Arsenal's first red card in 68 games.
Although Manuel Almunia made a wonderful save from Alessandro Diamanti's spot-kick, the home team still had a nervy second half to negotiate.
They did it manfully. Apart from Carlton Cole's post-rattling drive, West Ham were kept at a distance. Arsenal sealed the win seven minutes from time when Matthew Upson handled and Cesc Fabregas fired home from the spot.
Wenger's men will drop to third if Manchester United and Chelsea both win their games on Sunday. However even draws could be damaging enough.
Arsenal simple refuse to take the easy route to the title right now. They keep on digging themselves into holes and then finding a way out.
It is heart-stopping and heartening in equal measure.
But their character is shining through.
Wenger made two changes from the side had that beaten Hull so late the previous Saturday. Fabregas (hamstring) and Alex Song (suspension) were back.
Numerically, they replaced Abou Diaby and Bacary Sagna. But in actual fact, the new recruits both came into central midfield so Samir Nasri moved out to the right and Eboue filled in behind him.
This may have been the late game on Saturday but it was the earliest fixture affecting in the title race. Arsenal had been playing catch-up more often than not in recent weeks. Today they finally could put a little pressure on the others.
And it took them only five minutes to start the process.
Denilson received the ball just outside the area, exchanged passes with Bendtner and fired low in the corner. It was the Brazilian's sixth of the season in only his 20th game, not bad for a defensive midfielder.
As usual, he celebrated with a Samba.
The goal was the highlight of a brisk, open start. Bendtner's drive and Alessandro Diamanti's free-kick whistled wide at either end. In the ninth minute, Nasri's chip found Denilson in space 12 yards out. He went for the spectacular and, this time, failed.
Arsenal were fast, fluent and irresistible in the early stages. Eboue threaded a cross-shot beyond the far post through a crowded area and a delightful midfield move only ended when Bendtner's first-time pass just squirted clear of the onrushing Fabregas.
West Ham were on the back foot. Yes Junior Stanislas went clear on the right and his low cross was inches too quick for the sliding Mido. But that, and the early free-kick, was about it for the opening 44 minutes.
Despite the result at Hull last weekend, Arsenal's performance had been patchy. This was very different. Today, Wenger's men were in the groove. Everything seemed effortless. There was always a pass available when they attacked and always a block on hand when they had to defend.
As half-time approached the home team dropped intensity. Still, the only potential problem was the narrowness of the lead given their dominance.
Four minutes before the break they nearly remedied that. First Gael Clichy swept down the left and a near post flick from Fabregas dribbled across goal before Fabio Deprela dealt with the danger. Seconds later, Arshavin picked out the Spaniard at the far post but the West Ham defence were on him before he could get his shot away.
After that the half seemed happy to drift to the break.
But this thriller would end with a twist.
In the dying seconds, Arsenal lost a player and so nearly the lead.
A long ball forward caught them napping. Franco and Vermaelen tussled for the ball and the Italian muscled himself just in front of the Belgian. The Arsenal defender definitely made contact inside and outside the area but the decision was still debatable.
Certainly the penalty AND red card seemed harsh in the circumstances. But the laws of football left referee Martin Atkinson little option once he had blown for the foul.
Wenger felt passionately enough about the decision to seek out the referee as he went off at half time.
That, however, was not the immediate concern. Diamanti had won West Ham a point from the spot at Upton Park. This time he would be denied.
Almunia flung himself to his left to make the save. It was a massive moment in the game and, who knows, maybe the season.
However Wenger's men still had to negotiate the second half.
The good ship Arsenal had been sailing on a millpond for 45 minutes. The remaining 45 would be played out on choppier water.
Certainly it started that way. West Ham had early pressure but Wenger had brought back Alex Song to centre half and the reshuffled defence had enough about them to smuggle away any danger. The closest the visitors came in the opening 20 minutes of the half was a couple of pot-shots from Diamanti.
By then Arsenal had wrestled the initiative. Denilson had a long shot deflected wide and Fabregas went close with a free-kick.
Just before the hour, Wenger brought off Bendtner for Diaby and pushed Arshavin up front. An interesting move but if anything it helped Arsenal create the better chances.
Campbell forced Robert Green into a smothering save with a towering header from Fabregas' free-kick. Twelve minutes from time, Arshavin weaved his way into the area and again force the West Ham keeper into action.
By now Zola had brought on Benny McCarthy and Carlton Cole. He was cranking up all the pressure he could muster.
The latter bundled through the Arsenal defence and fired a low shot against the outside of the far post.
With 10 minutes left the game was in the balance. It was the type of situation in which Wenger's men had buckled in the past.
Yet again this team showed they are made of stronger stuff.
Upson handled Fabregas' just inside the area as the captain tried to clip a pass through to Eboue. This time the decision was obvious and Fabregas buried the penalty.
This was another triumph in adversity, another display of guts and spirit.
But that is standard fare for Arsenal right now and if they continue it until May 9 they might just keep their current position.
* Vermaelen is expected to receive a one-match ban and will miss the trip to Birmingham next Saturday.
- Vermaelen Red Card
- Campbell Yellow Card
- Fabregas Goal!
- Nasri 74
- Denilson Goal!
- Arshavin 84
- Bendtner 57
- Sagna 74
- Diaby 57
- Eduardo 84
West Ham United
- Daprela Yellow Card
- Upson Yellow Card
- Diamanti Yellow Card
- Kovac 70 Yellow Card
- Franco 57
- Mido 75
- Noble 70
- McCarthy 75
- Cole 57