By Richard Clarke at Reebok Stadium
Arsenal’s bid for the Premier League title is all but over.
They went down 2-1 at Bolton on Sunday thanks to a 90th-minute header from substitute Tamir Cohen. The goal ended a 16-game unbeaten Premier League run going back to mid-December and leaves Arsène Wenger’s side nine points adrift of their conquerors that day - Manchester United - with only 12 available.
Defeat was hard on Arsenal this afternoon. Daniel Sturridge headed the home side in front seven minutes before the interval but Robin van Persie levelled three minutes after the restart. Inbetween Wojciech Szczesny saved a penalty from Kevin Davies.
In the final stages it was they who were chasing the game with more intent. But football, like life, is not fair. Arsenal have fought hard all season but fallen away at the sharp end of the campaign.
They must simply renew and rebuild for next season.
Both sides came into this game on the back of a tough week. Arsenal had lost leads to draw against Liverpool and Tottenham - consequently they were now outsiders to be champions
Meanwhile this was Bolton’s first game since that 5-0 humbling to Stoke in the FA Cup Semi-Final the previous weekend.
Wenger brought back Jack Wilshere for Abou Diaby (calf). The English midfielder had spent a profitable loan spell at the Reebok Stadium last term.
Chelsea striker Sturridge was in the midst of something similar this season. He was a crucial miss at Wembley last Sunday but was restored to the side this afternoon.
It was Easter weekend in England with summer sunshine to boot. Arsenal had to ensure the end-of-season feeling did not permeate their football this afternoon.
They started well enough but, by half-time, they had lost their edge and were behind.
In the fourth minute, Theo Walcott went through but his cross-shot was batted away by Jussi Jaaskenlainen. It fell to Samir Nasri, who let fly. However the Bolton defence was upon him and blocked the shot almost at source.
Seconds later, Arsenal broke quickly again and Walcott once more raced clear on the right. He cut the ball back towards Cesc Fabregas but the skipper hoisted his shot over the bar.
On the quarter-hour Bolton created their first real opportunity when a low near-post cross from Gretar Steinsson was clipped into the sidenetting by Davies.
Arsenal’s response was to go closer still. Fabregas fired goalward from distance and his bouncing shot was turned around the post by Jaaskelainen. After that the Spaniard found Van Persie, whose volley was blocked.
However, by now, Bolton were exerting themselves too. In the 25th minute, Sturridge sent Lee clear in the right-hand channel. His pass towards Matt Taylor was intercepted by Alex Song with the Arsenal defence stretched to breaking point.
Seconds later, the Bolton midfielder went through but his shot was saved by Szczesny.
The home side had now taken a measure of control. Seven minutes from half-time, Sturridge released Lee once again but Szczesny stood up well to save and Laurent Koscielny mopped up the danger by heading the ball behind.
Lee fired the corner into the area and Gary Cahill timed his run perfectly to head goalwards with power. Nasri chested the ball off the line but Sturridge was on hand to stab home a header from close range. It was his seventh goal in nine games for Coyle’s side.
After the week they had endured, it was the last thing Arsenal needed.
Fabregas planted a pot-shot against the post as the seconds ticked away and Van Persie fired a free-kick horribly high.
Arsenal looked like the world was against them as they trudged in at half-time.
It certainly seemed to be the case when referee Mike Jones adjudged Johan Djourou to have bundled over Sturridge 30 seconds after the restart.
It was the ninth penalty Arsenal have conceded in the Premier League this season - the highest in the top flight - and looked to be one of the softest. Certainly the Swiss defender was incredulous at the decision. Davies tried to place the spot-kick down the centre of the goal but Szczesny managed to boot the ball away with his trailing leg.
It was a massive moment and one that the visitors would compound a couple of minutes later when Van Perise threaded his shot through a crowded area to pull Arsenal level.
However Arsenal could not maintain that momentum. As they had in the first half, Bolton ground their way back into the game - yet without ever really testing Szczesny again.
But as we reached the last quarter the visitors were the ones chasing the game.
With 20 minutes left, Van Persie sent Nasri through one-on-one but Jaaskelainen saved his first effort and Cahill blocked the rebound. A huge opportunity.
Shortly afterwards, Walcott’s cross was nudged away from the waiting Nasri at the last second.
Arsenal were now in the ascendency. Wenger had already brought on Marouane Chamakh for Song, he followed it with Andrey Arshavin for the tiring Walcott.
The Russian, in particular, gave Wenger’s side renewed impetus and pressure but nothing clear-cut.
A minute from time Johan Elmander burst clear and Szczesny pulled off a fine save. From the corner, substitute Cohen crashed home a close-range header.
It was tough on Arsenal and a terrible way for a title bid full of strife, struggle and purpose to end.
However they have surely proved they are strong enough to challenge more strongly next season.
- Wilshere 84 Yellow Card
- Walcott 72
- Song 64 Yellow Card
- van Persie Goal!
- Arshavin 72
- Ramsey 84
- Chamakh 64 Yellow Card
- Taylor Yellow Card
- Muamba 70 Yellow Card
- Elmander 89
- Sturridge 84 Goal!
- Davies Yellow Card
- Davies 70
- Cohen 84 Goal! Yellow Card
- Klasnic 89