By Richard Clarke
Wigan killed off Arsenal's remaining title hopes with an incredible three-goal comeback in the last 10 minutes at the DW Stadium on Sunday.
At 2-0, Arsène Wenger's side were cruising and apparently going just three points adrift of leaders Chelsea with three games to play. Though the visitors struggled to raise their game in the first half-hour, Theo Walcott stabbed them in front just before the break. When Mikael Silvestre added another three minutes after the restart, Arsenal seemed to be clinging on to their title hopes by their fingertips.
However 10 minutes from time, Ben Watson scored from close range. Then, with seconds remaining, Lukasz Fabianski spilled a corner and Titus Bramble nodded home virtually on the goal-line.
Finally, in injury time, Charles N'Zogbia curled in a classy shot from long-range.
If Arsenal had been shocked at Tottenham on Wednesday, they were stunned here this afternoon.
Mathematically, they can still catch Chelsea but, right now, Wenger's men surely need just the most straightforward of wins.
They thought they had that today. But, yet again, it was not to be.
This was another deeply disappointing day for Arsenal Football Club.
Wenger made four changes from the side whose title hopes seemed to have taken a terminal turn at Tottenham on Wednesday.
The most notable was the inclusion of Fabianski, who took over in goal because Manuel Almunia was struggling with a wrist injury. Denilson had picked up a groin injury at White Hart Lane so Craig Eastmond filled the holding midfield role. Sadly Thomas Vermaelen's season had ended at the same venue so Silvestre joined captain Sol Campbell at centre back.
The only unenforced change was Walcott for Eboue on the right hand side of midfield. Despite his late cameo in midweek, Robin van Persie began on the bench.
Chelsea's defeat at Tottenham on Saturday had hardly handed back Arsenal all their title aspirations. But it meant victory today could at least close the gap to a more manageable margin.
With just three games to go, the Stamford Bridge side still had all the cards in their favour. Arsenal, let alone second-place Manchester United, just had to win and hope.
However in the early stages it seemed that Wenger's men had left their endeavour at White Hart Lane. The visitors struggled to raise themselves and Wigan showed more going forward.
In the eighth minute Watson fired a corner through the six-yard area and the ball just evaded the sliding Hugo Rodallega at the far post. Shortly afterwards Marcelo Moreno helped set up N'Zogbia to fire a cross-shot just wide.
Arsenal were second gear. Without the probing of the Premier League title race, it seemed they just could not get their game going.
Bendtner scuffed corner towards the far post and Clichy swung his leg at a free-kick. Both were simplistically scooped up by Wigan keeper Chris Kirkland.
In the 24th minute, Campbell slid a header wide from Walcott's free-kick. It was the Arsenal's first genuine chance of the game.
But many more would follow straight away.
Just past the half-hour, Walcott burst through on the right and crossed into a crowded area when everyone expected him to the dink the ball home over Kirkland. It was a good opening frittered away but it did at least suggest Arsenal had finally woken up.
Four minutes before the break, they took the lead.
Bendtner sent Walcott clear through the centre with Bramble in hot pursuit. The England international kept his balance and held his nerve to steer a low shot into the far corner.
Walcott had been Arsenal's brightest spark throughout the first half and he nearly doubled their advantage just before the whistle.
Bendtner robbed Bramble on the halfway line and backheeled the ball to Walcott. He collected and teased Steve Gohouri before prodding a cross-shot inches wide.
- Silvestre Goal!
- Eastmond 90
- Walcott 81 Goal!
- Nasri Yellow Card
- Rosicky 81
- Eboue 81
- Merida 81
- van Persie 90
- Bramble Goal! Yellow Card
- Diame Yellow Card
- Watson 90 Goal!
- N'Zogbia Goal!
- Martins 62
- Scharner 90
- Moses 62
Arsenal went into the tunnel with the lead but, in a very average game, their display had been...well... average.
In fact the first five minutes of the second half had more action than the whole of the first 45.
Within seconds of the start, Nasri hauled back Watson as he traversed the area. The incident was right in front of Lee Mason but the referee waved play on.
Arsenal went straight down the other end and Bendtner set up Diaby but the Frenchman was denied at the far post.
His second effort went out for a corner. Nasri swung it over and Silvestre rose unmarked to steer home a header. It was the Frenchman's first goal since this fixture last April.
Then in the 50th minute, N'Zogbia burst into the area but shot tamely at Fabianski. A massive miss.
It had been a lightning start and, understandably, the pace dropped. Wigan were more willing to go forward but now Arsenal had the confidence of that two-goal cushion.
The best Wigan could muster was when Rodallega evaded Campbell for a second and could only trickle a shot wide. Then Watson forced Fabianski into a fine low save.
Arsenal were in control but, at the same time, their attacking was now down to trickle. They were trying to cruise home. And with 10 minutes left, they got caught.
Substitute Victor Moses drove to the byline and cut the ball back to the area. Watson arrived on cue to slam it into the net.
Suddenly Wigan were a team possessed. N'Zogbia reached the same byline and cut the ball back only for Fabianski to intercept.
Seconds later, Watson's nodded a corner towards the far post and Nasri booted the ball off the line.
Just before the whistle N'Zogbia fired over another flag kick and Fabianski spilled it on to Bramble's head. The ball had clearly bounced over the line before Eastmond booted it away.
It was already an incredible turnaround but there was more twist to come.
Deep into injury time N'Zogbia collected the ball in midfield and, as the Arsenal defence backed off, he curled his shot into the far corner from 25 yards.
The home fans were delirious. This result all but assures their Premier League status.
Arsenal were shell-shocked. Back-to-back defeats are rare enough for Wenger's men, as indeed are losses to Tottenham, but this had been one hell of a way to drop out of the title race.