By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are back to winning ways.
They recorded their first Premier League victory in more than a month by squeezing past Birmingham on Saturday.
The visitors took a shock lead in the 33rd minute when Nikola Zigic converted Keith Fahey’s left-wing cross with a towering header.
However the key moment of the game came four minutes before the break when Scott Dann was adjudged to have brought down Marouane Chamakh and Samir Nasri slotted home from the spot.
The Birmingham players were angry with the decision but replays proved there had been contact.
The Moroccan kept his cool and would sidefoot the all-important winner two minutes after the break.
Jack Wilshere saw red in the dying seconds for a tackle on Zigic. It made for a nervous finale but Arsenal were worth their win.
Wenger’s men are often accused of ‘softness’ but this afternoon they scrapped their way to a vital three points.
Wilshere take the headlines but Chamakh's contribution was key. He epitomised the mixture of steel and silk that Arsenal displayed.
The 26-year-old has become very important very quickly.
And this was arguably the most important result of the season so far. One that saw Wenger's men move up to second in the table.
Light rain started falling as Arsenal kicked off this afternoon. There had been a chill in the air all day. The last sunshine of the summer was gone and so had that ‘early season’ feel. The campaign was fully underway.
Wenger had been bruised by back-to-back Premier League defeats against West Brom and Chelsea. He had also lost a couple of players from the game at Stamford Bridge before the international break – Bacary Sagna (thigh) and Laurent Koscielny (back). But, in the same period, he had gained three.
Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Manuel Almunia (elbow) were very close to returning today. However Robin van Persie (ankle) and Aaron Ramsey (leg) will not be seen till November.
Birmingham had Alex Hleb, who left Emirates Stadium in 2008, in support of beanpole striker Zigic.
The Midlanders had not won at Arsenal in 53 years – a considerable period. But then West Brom had ended a 27-year barren spell at Highbury and Emirates Stadium three weeks ago.
History could not be allowed to repeat itself this afternoon.
However that never really looked likely. Arsenal showed more invention and creativity in the first half-hour than they had displayed in the entire 90 minutes against Roberto Di Matteo’s side. But for a spiky 15 minutes just before half-time it would be their day.
In the fourth minute, Wilshire and Chamakh exchanged a pair of passes before the Moroccan let fly from the edge of the area. Stephen Carr threw himself into a fine block.
Diaby, who made an eye-catching start, peppered keeper Ben Foster with shots in the minutes that followed. But it was two of Arsenal’s other Frenchman who combined to put the ball in the net midway through the half.
Nasri fired over a free-kick from the left and Sebastien Squillaci powered home a header at the far post. The centre back ran off in celebration of the second goal in his Arsenal career. However he had not spotted the assistant referee’s flag, presumably for offside. Replays cast doubt on the call.
In the 19th minute, Diaby span away from Scott Dann and cleverly fed Arshavin, who was sprinting into the left-hand channel. Foster raced out to smother the Russian’s shot.
A couple of minutes later, Gael Clichy latched onto a stray backpass from Seb Larsson and fizzed a low shot just past the post. It would have been the left-back's second goal in 230 games at Arsenal.
The home side were starting to look ominous. Up to this point, the only real threat to Lukasz Fabianski’s goal came from his own team-mate. Eboue inadvertently headed Larsson’s free-kick towards his own goal but the keeper snatched the ball out of the air.
However, the game would be turned on its head in the 33rd minute when the visitors scored.
Birmingham won a throw by the left-hand corner and played it short to Keith Fahey. The former Arsenal trainee spotted that Zigic, all 6ft 7ins of him, had pulled away towards the diminutive Clichy. The ball was excellent but the header was pin-point – across the keeper and into the far corner.
It was a well-finished strike but utterly against the run of play.
Arsenal struggled to get the goal out of their heads in the minutes that followed and it nearly cost them the game.
Carr took a free-kick quickly and found Johnson down the line. He nodded the ball into the heart of the six-yard box. Lee Bowyer and Fahey both went for the ball and their combined effort flew over the bar from close-range. Had it been a solo strike then surely Birmingham would have doubled their lead.
It would prove to be a critical miss because four minutes from the break, Arsenal were level.
But although Nasri’s penalty was clear, the decision less so. Dann definitely made contact with Chamakh’s leg but the Birmingham defender thought he had made the most of it.
The ill-feeling would linger until half time.
However two minutes after the restart, Arsenal would enjoy a very different emotion.
Wilshere chested down Song’s flick just outside the area and sent Chamakh through. He ghosted past two defenders and then the keeper before slotting home. It was his fifth goal of the season but none had been celebrated so gleefully.
Now it was Birmingham’s turn to sag in response to conceding a goal. The Arsenal of the first half-hour returned with avengence.
Diaby had a drive blocked and, just past the hour, Wilshere roared around the visiting defence before rifling his shot over the bar. Midway through the half, Arshavin prodded a shot towards the near post and Foster made a sharp save.
The visitors seemed to have little left but, as the game wore on, Arsenal lost their edge. They needed another goal to make sure and, despite battering on the Birmingham back door, could not find a way through.
Eleven minutes from time, Wenger withdrew Chamakh for Bendtner. The outgoing player got a standing ovation and a handshake from his manager. The incoming player got a wonderful welcome for his first appearance of the season.
He nearly killed the game with his first touch. However Tomas Rosicky’s left-wing cross was inches away from his outstretched foot.
With six minutes left, the Czech midfielder forced a flying save from Foster. In the dying seconds, the England keeper made a more fumbling stop from Nasri’s drive.
Deep into injury time, Wilshere was sent off for a tackle on Zigic.
It heralded a couple of hail-Mary crosses into the area but Fabianski’s handling was superb all afternoon.
It had been far from a perfect afternoon but Arsenal had got what they deserved.
- Eboue Yellow Card
- Wilshere Red Card
- Arshavin 70
- Nasri Goal! Yellow Card
- Chamakh 79 Goal!
- Rosicky 70
- Bendtner 79
- Carr Yellow Card
- Fahey 78
- Bowyer 80 Yellow Card
- Zigic Goal!
- Murphy 78
- O'Connor 80