By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are closing in on the top of the Premier League table.
Arsène Wenger's side carved out a hard-fought 2-0 victory in a crucial fixture at Bolton on Sunday. If they do the same thing in the return game at Emirates Stadium in midweek they will go ahead of Chelsea and Manchester United.
It could be a significant moment in their season.
It is highly appropriate that today's result should put Arsenal in such a strong position because this was a title-winning kind of victory.
The visitors were under pressure for sustained periods of this game. Bolton, under new manager Owen Coyle, quizzed their opponents at the start of each half but Arsenal always had an answer. A well-worked goal from Cesc Fabregas gave them a vital lead just before the half-hour then, 12 minutes from time, substitute Fran Merida fired home a game-clinching second.
‘Fluent Arsenal' were not present at the Reebok today. Bolton would not allow that. Instead, ‘dogged Arsenal' took their place and they were determined enough to create a couple of opportunities for their undoubted class to shine through.
It is a method that has brought the Premier League title to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge in recent years.
And it looks like Arsenal might have copied the formula this season.
Before kick-off, Wenger's team news was significant. Going into Friday's training session, the manager knew he would be without Alex Song (international duty) and Denilson (rib). However in training that day he lost Aaron Ramsey to a muscular problem and subsequently Samir Nasri suffered a hamstring injury.
That situation heralded the call-up of Craig Eastmond. The 19-year-old had played in the defensive midfield role with some distinction in the Carling Cup earlier in the campaign but this was his first Premier League start.
Elsewhere, Fabregas returned after hamstring trouble and Tomas Rosicky, fresh from his crucial equaliser last week, started on the right. Gael Clichy was back in the squad for the first time since October 31 but only made the bench.
Both teams emerged to a barrage of drums. Clearly the plan was to have the Reebok Stadium rocking for Coyle's opening fixture.
The Scot nearly had a dream start. Within 45 seconds of the whistle, Chung-Young Lee and Fabrice Muamba set up Kevin Davies in the area but Fabregas popped up in the six-yard box to hack the ball clear. The early moments certainly belonged to the home side but Arsenal soon imposed themselves.
Fabregas and Rosicky belted the shots wide and then Jussi Jaaskelainen had to rush out then bat ball away from the scampering Eduardo.
Arsenal were looking inventive going forward and, in the 12th minute, that should have won them a penalty. Eduardo curled in a low cross from the left-hand side and Fabregas flicked the ball away from Jaaskelainen. In his follow-through the keeper swept his feet around to bring down the Spaniard. Referee Phil Dowd waved play on as the floored Fabregas rolled around in frustration.
Bolton's best attacking avenue was down their right-hand side. In the 20th minute Armand Traore was caught in possession and Tamir Cohen's cross was fumbled behind by Almunia. The Israeli then hacked over the bar and Ivan Klasnic forced a low save from Almunia.
However despite a decent amount of possession, most of the quality was still coming from Arsenal, with Arshavin a growing influence. The Russian saw his low cross dribble inches away from Eduardo then he cut inside his marker only for his attempted curler to be deflected wide.
Arsenal seemed to be laying down preparatory work for a goal.
It arrived in the 28th minute.
Diaby darted into the area but lost the ball. Eventually it fell to Fabregas who kept his cool to play a delightful one-two with Eduardo and the pick his spot with a low shot into the corner. It was the Spaniard's 13th goal of the season.
In the 31st minute, Arsenal nearly grabbed a second. Fabregas' deep corner fell to Eastmond on the edge of the area. The midfielder met the ball with a sidefoot volley. It was a pacy effort than found a path through the crowded area only for Jaaskelainen to clutch the ball on the line.
Fabregas had claims for another penalty shout shortly afterwards when he was clipped by Zat Knight. The Arsenal captain tussled with Matt Taylor afterwards both got a lecture from referee Dowd.
Rosicky and Paul Robinson were booked shortly afterwards as tempers flared momentarily.
As half time approached both sides had chances to score. First Lee's low shot forced Almunia into a sharp save then Arshavin's cutback was tapped past the far post by the stumbling Fabregas with the goal gaping.
It was an open opportunity but no better than the one Bolton carved out in injury time.
With his back to goal, Klasnic nodded the ball over Gallas and Almunia had to thrust out a hand to stop him prodding home the equaliser. It was an unprepossessing save but it preserved Arsenal's lead as they went into the break.
As in the first half, Bolton were off the blocks much the quicker after the restart and, again, they were inventive down their right-hand side. Lee got in a number of worrying positions and fired in probing crosses. The most dangerous for Arsenal came when Gallas' outstretched leg diverted the ball towards the far post and the diving Almunia had to intercept.
Bolton were turning the screw and Arsenal were struggling to keep them off.
In fairness the visitors kept clear chances to a minimum. The best came just before the hour when Klasnic freed Taylor on the left of the area but the midfielder blazed his effort over the bar.
Gallas slid a header over the bar and Eduardo nearly profited from Arshavin's left-wing cross but undoubtedly Bolton were in the ascendancy.
Just past the hour, Fran Merida replaced Eastmond and Diaby dropped into the holding role. Gradually Arsenal flexed their muscles once more.
However in the 70th minute Bolton might have got on level terms when Gavin McCann's lofted pass found Taylor midway inside the Arsenal half with a clear run on goal. The former Portsmouth midfielder did not realise the extent of his isolation and snatched at an early shot. It rolled harmlessly wide and the opportunity went begging.
Wenger then brought on Clichy for Rosicky to shore up Arsenal's left flank. A wise move. With 15 minutes left, Vermaelen, who had been outstanding in defence this afternoon, curled a free-kick on to the top of the net.
Three minutes later, they got the crucial second. A sweeping move ended with Eduardo clipping a inviting cross to the far post. It was flicked off Gary Cahill's head and Merida collected with his left foot before steering home a cross-shot with his right. It was another silky finish from a small Spanish central midfielder.
Bolton were now spent. Taylor rammed an effort over the bar but, in truth, Arsenal cruised home.
This used to be a bogey ground for Wenger's men but this was their fourth straight win at the Reebok.
Times are clearly changing.
And, on Wednesday, the lead in the Premier League might do the self-same thing.
- Vermaelen Yellow Card
- Rosicky 74 Yellow Card
- Fabregas (C) Goal!
- Eastmond 63
- Eduardo 84
- Clichy 74
- Merida 63 Goal!
- Vela 84
- Robinson Yellow Card