By Richard Clarke
Arsenal withstood a Blackburn battering to pull off a welcome 2-1 win at Ewood Park on Saturday.
The visitors took the lead midway through the first half when Robin van Persie's pass allowed Theo Walcott to drill home a cross-shot. It was the England winger's fourth goal in two games.
Blackburn replied almost immediately. El-Hadji Diouf muscled past Laurent Koscielny on the left and Mame Biram Diouf tapped home from close range.
Before and after the goals, Blackburn put Arsenal under expected pressure from corners and throw-ins. This time the visitors stayed strong.
They grabbed the winner six minutes after the restart when Andrey Arshavin fired home through a forest of legs.
The home side tried to bulldozer an equaliser in the final stages but, once again, the visitors were galvanised with Manuel Almunia excellent in goal.
The only blight on the day was an injury to Van Persie. Apart from that, this was Arsenal's afternoon. The three points were valuable of course but the confidence instilled from this type victory may be much more important.
Arsenal are looking like title contenders this season.
A wet Ewood Park was a world away from the World Cup Final in a sweltering Johannesburg on July 11. But Wenger chose this afternoon to start Cesc Fabregas and Van Persie for the first time since then.
The Spaniard replaced Jack Wilshere, the Dutchman's inclusion pushed Marouane Chamakh down to the bench.
Wenger had been quietly content with his side's draw at Liverpool and 6-0 win at Blackpool so far this season. But this would offer a different measuring stick. Arsenal had led here last May only to concede to a couple of scrappy goals from corners.
The squad had changed little since then but had the lessons been learnt?
Overall, the first half suggested they had.
In the opening minutes, Van Persie took a corner from the right-hand side. Walcott's shot was blocked and the ball then ping-ponged to Diaby 25 yards out. His shot seemed goal-bound before hitting defender Vince Grella.
After that, as the rain took over, so did Blackburn. They forced a succession of corners and Stoke-style throw-ins.
Via the former method, Ryan Nelsen nodded powerfully towards the top corner only for Fabregas to head the ball off the line.
Via the latter method, Samba's back header was pawed away by the stretching Almunia.
Then, in the 14th minute, the centre back rose above the Arsenal defence to steer a powerful header six inches over the bar.
The visitors were mounting a reasonable rear-guard action but that is never going to be their forte.
As soon as they got the ball down and started playing, they took the lead.
In the 20th minute, Van Persie stuck out a telescopic leg in midfield to control Arshavin's pass and released the galloping Walcott on the right-hand side. He took a touch and buried his low shot just inside the far post. It was a classy finish following his hat-trick last Saturday.
Suddenly Arsenal looked a team transformed. Now the visitors were using their strengths to pressure their opponents.
Blackburn were on the back-foot. But not for long.
El-Hadji Diouf collected the ball on the left with Koscielny in close attendance. It was a one-on-one and the Senegalese international won it. Koscielny was shouldered off the ball and Diouf reached the byline. The Blackburn winger had time and space for his namesake to pull away from Gael Clichy and stab home into the empty net.
It was a body blow to Arsenal, who had weathered the early storm so well. They struggled to respond in the 15 minutes that followed. Their cause was not helped by the loss of Van Persie.
The Dutchman had received treatment just after he had set up the goal. After a second seeing-to from the physio, he gingerly walked off. Chamakh came on.
Both managers would have buoyed enough to give positive team-talks at the break. However it was Arsenal would came out with more positivity.
Six minutes in, Sagna thundered down the right and crossed into the area. Fabregas found the ball at his feet but his goal-bound drive hit Walcott six yards out. The ball fell kindly to Arshavin who fired his shot through a crowded area and into the far corner of the net.
A couple of minutes later, Nikola Kalanic profited from Vermaelen's mistake and fired fiercely over the bar.
But Arsenal were now in the ascendency. Walcott and Arshavin had shots blocked as the visitors tried to put the game to bed.
However Blackburn would not be buried. Fifteen minutes from time, El Hadji Diouf angled a ball towards Mame Diram Doiuf on the penalty spot but Sagna raced in to thieve the ball.
After Walcott had whisked a shot just over the bar, Koscielny slipped and substitute David Dunn stole in. However his shot was straight at Almunia. A couple of minutes later, Michel Salgado fired over from close range.
The home side were cranking up into a crescendo. It was The Alamo for the Arsenal again.
Five minutes from time, Samba knocked the ball down for Gael Givet to fire in a low shot that Sagna blocked before Almunia could intervene.
Blackburn had a couple of claims for a penalty rightly denied in the final seconds and, after one, Arsenal broke quickly but substitute Jack Wilshere was denied at the far post by Robinson.
The whistle blew shortly afterwards and the celebrations from supporters and players seemed a little more joyous than usual.
Both knew that a significant hurdle had been leapt this afternoon.
- Arshavin 83 Goal!
- Walcott Goal!
- Fabregas 68
- Persie 34
- Wilshere 83
- Rosicky 68
- Chamakh 34
- Givet Yellow Card
- Diouf 81 Goal!
- Nzonzi 81