By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
And then there were two.
It looks like Arsenal and Manchester United will fight it out for the Premier League crown after a pivotal day in the title race.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side beat third-place Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime to pour pressure on Arsène Wenger’s outfit before they faced Wolves at Emirates Stadium.
However, Arsenal rolled up their sleeves once again and ground out a 2-0 victory.
Robin van Persie grabbed both – one in each half. The first was a cute volley from a cross by Cesc Fabregas, the second a cool finish from a breakaway inspired by the Spaniard and spurred on by Theo Walcott.
Wolves had beaten Manchester United last week and tried to be their usual dogged, resolute selves this afternoon. However, Arsenal just did not allowed that to happen.
Wenger’s men went at them from the first whistle and kept going all afternoon. It could and should have been more but a safe, assured 2-0 was just fine.
Manchester United now lead Arsenal by four points, with Manchester City another four adrift having played a game more.
It looks like Fergie v Wenger, Red Devils v Red-and-White for the title.
Let battle commence.
The early result was always going to colour this afternoon’s match with Wolves but, at his pre-match press conference, Wenger had remained resolute that the upcoming clash with Barcelona would not influence his team selection today.
As a result, Arsenal were at full strength with only one change – Alex Song for the suspended Abou Diaby in central midfield.
Of course it was Wolves who had foiled Manchester United’s unbeaten campaign last weekend. They had also overturned Chelsea and Manchester City at Molineux but were a very different proposition away from home – a weaker one.
In fairness that victory had helped Arsenal get off the hook last Saturday but, this afternoon, the earlier result had put the pressure squrely on the shoulders of Wenger’s men.
In truth they never looked like buckling this afternoon.
Emirates Stadium was hit by a short, sharp shower as the game kicked off but, by the quarter-hour, the sun was shining.
Arsenal, however, were temperate throughout.
Fabregas put the ball in the net in the opening seconds but the referee had already blown for a foul on Jack Wilshere. Van Persie thumped the resulting free-kick over the bar. The Dutchman then thrashed high from open play a few minutes later.
It was hardly the marauding stuff sometimes seen at Emirates Stadium but it was the right response to both the draw at Newcastle and the Manchester derby.
The deadlock was broken just as Arsenal were starting to settle down. The goal was out of nothing. Fabregas crossed from the right and Van Persie sent a low volley in to the far corner. It was wonderful technique from what he calls his ‘chocolate leg’ – his unfavoured right.
In the wake of the goal, Arsenal looked to take the game by the throat. Their preferred method, as always, was an iron first in a velvet glove.
Djourou looped a deflected header onto the top of the net from Andrey Arshavin’s free-kick then the Russian sidefooted wide from the subsequent corner when he should have scored.
Just after the half-hour, Arshavin fashioned a brace of better chances. He beat Ronald Zubar on the left and squared to the unmarked Walcott eight yards out. Wayne Hennessey clawed the ball out to Fabregas, whose shot was cleared off the line by the backtracking Richard Stearman.
Wolves had only mustered a little, unfocussed pressure, to this point. But they had half a shout for a penalty late on when Adam Hammill appeared to be bundled over.
But, this had been about as one-sided a half as we had seen at Emirates this season, an equaliser would have been a travesty.
And Arshavin’s penalty shout a few minutes later was probably stronger anyway.
As ever, the main complaint from an Arsenal perspective was the ratio of goals to overall dominance.
On the whistle, Song nudged a ball to Van Persie whose snapshot was blocked by Hennessey’s trailing leg. The keeper had been the stand-out performer in the first 45 minutes.
And that tells you everything you need to know.
Seconds after the restart, Wilshere waltzed through the Wolves defence and squared for Walcott, who had time and space to pick his spot but blazed wide.
Arsenal were now dominant in everything but the scoreline. In days gone by they have been vulnerable in such scenarios. But not today.
They blitzed Wolves early in the second half and eventually grabbed a second through sheer force of will.
Hennessey made a fine save from Stearman, his own defender, and then Arshavin's drive.
The game was now even more one-way and, in the 56th minute, Arsenal finally grabbed that second. Given their pressure it was ironic that its origins came from a Wolves attack.
A raking pass from Fabregas sent Walcott sprinting down the right. He had Van Persie in support but only one covering defender. The Englishman found the unmarked Dutchman just inside the area. He took his time and pulled the trigger. It was his 10th goal in his last seven Premier League games.
Arshavin nearly added a third by charging down Hennessey’s clearance and then Van Persie volleyed wide.
But, with 18 minutes left, Wenger felt confident enough to withdraw his main two attacking outlets this afternoon – Arshavin and Van Persie. Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner came on.
Perhaps Wednesday was finally entering his thoughts.
To be honest, the game petered out after that. Arsenal wanted to cruise home and allowed Wolves a little joy further forward.
In the final few minutes, Walcott flashed a shot inches wide and Fabregas forced another decent save from Hennessey. But by now, maybe Barcelona was part of the equation.
It was understandable, that is a massive game in Arsenal’s season.
However, according to Wenger, the game they had just won was always more important.
Time will tell if he is right.
- Wilshere 77
- Arshavin 72
- Persie 71 Goal! Goal!
- Denilson 77
- Chamakh 71
- Bendtner 72
- Zubar Yellow Card
- O'Hara 63
- Milijas 63
- Doyle 80
- Foley 63
- Fletcher 80
- Ebanks-Blake 63