By Richard Clarke
Arsenal dropped two crucial points on Wednesday night by drawing 2-2 at 10-man Wigan.
Arsène Wenger’s side went behind from a hotly debatable 17th-minute penalty but still lead at the break thanks to late brace. Andrey Arshavin scored the first and made the second for Nicklas Bendtner.
The visitors seemed to have control in the second half. And their cause was helped when Wigan’s best player on the night, Charles N’Zogbia, was sent off for apparently headbutting Jack Wilshere.
The game was digesting the dismissal when, 10 minutes from time, Sebastien Squillaci headed into his own net as he attempted to stop Gary Caldwell scoring.
After beating Chelsea so wonderfully on Monday this was a big blow to Arsenal’s title hopes.
But they reach the midway point of the season with 36 points from 19 games – two points off leaders Manchester United.
This was a disappointing night but Arsenal are still very much in the title race.
Wenger retained only three players from Monday’s starting line-up. They were Lukasz Fabianski, Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny.
The Frenchman clearly had the next two games – Birmingham away and Manchester City at home – in mind. He was managing his resources.
The following players came in: Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Denilson, Squillaci, Arshavin, Emmanuel Eboue, Marouane Chamakh and Bendtner.
Robin van Persie and Alex Song were left out entirely. Cesc Fabregas was suspended. The rest of Monday’s side was on the bench.
It was a bit of a gamble given Arsenal had gained so much momentum from the win over Chelsea. But this is arguably the most intense time of the season so Wenger rolled the dice.
For a time, it appeared he had lost.
The first 10 minutes were fast, frenetic and dominated by Wigan. N’Zogbia skipped past Eboue on the left hand side to reach the byline. However, his cross was misdirected. Then Hugo Rodallega drifted off Koscielny at the far post but failed to connect with his header.
The Frenchman got some sort of revenge when he stopped the striker in his tracks after Squillaci had been beaten.
Arshavin prodded an effort over the bar but N’Zogbia tested Fabianski from distance. The visitors were under pressure.
However, as time wore on, Arsenal gained control. Bendtner’s goalbound free-kick hit Squillaci in the wall and Eboue’s cross found Arshavin at the far post but the Russian’s volley was blocked.
So, the opener, when it arrived in the 17th minute was slightly against the run of play – and very controversial.
N’Zogbia danced inside Diaby in the right-hand channel and though Koscielny flicked out a foot he was withdrawing it by the time the midfielder went past him. Replays cast doubt there was contact but referee Lee Probert pointed to the spot.
Ben Watson converted the penalty with aplomb.
In fact, Wigan would have stronger claims for a spot-kick shortly afterwards when Fabianski took out Rodallega. Arsenal were saved because Koscielny, the covering defender, had prodded the ball well clear.
Midway through the half, Ali Al Habsi spilled Rosicky’s piledriver and only a perfectly-timed challenge from Caldwell stopped Koscielny stabbing home from close range.
Shortly after that Diaby limped off and Wilshere replaced him. Though the change was not planned it added an urgency and energy to Arsenal’s game.
By half time, they were in the lead.
Seven minutes from the whistle, Chamakh flicked Bendtner into space on the right. The Dane’s drive was shoveled out to Arshavin by Al Habsi. It was a difficult height for the diminutive Russian but he waited for the ball to fall and hooked his shot into the corner.
Arshavin had been quiet until that moment but suddenly he was at the hub of the Arsenal attack. Two minutes before the whistle he fashioned their second by driving at the Wigan defence and prodding a ball through to Bendtner.
The striker bundled home his fourth goal of the season.
The brace gave Arsenal a cushion they would enjoy at the start of the second half. The visitors were happy to keep the ball and invite Wigan on. For the first time in the game, the hosts had to bring the game to Arsenal.
It meant that the chances dried up. Wilshere burst into the area and Sagna’s right-wing cross was headed into his own sidenetting by Antolin Alcaraz.
Just before the hour, Cleverley latched on to the full back’s clearance and fired over. But Wigan seemed to be running out of ideas.
And, in the 70th minute, Arsenal might have killed the game. Arshavin timed his run perfectly to collect Wilshere’s clip into the area. However, the Russian could not lift his shot over Al Habsi.
But as the visitors started to look further forward, so Wigan had space to create – and they nearly profited.
In the 75th minute, substitute James McArthur sent N’Zogbia clear and his drive was batted away by Fabianski from point-blank range.
It would be the last meaningful act of the midfielder’s game. Two minutes later he appeared to headbutt Wilshere and was sent off.
Sometimes late dismissals kill off the chasing team, this one did not.
In the 80th minute, Watson’s deep corner was headed back into the area by Rodallega and Squillaci, in trying the prevent Caldwell from scoring, nodded the ball into his own net.
Wenger threw on Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri immediately.
Four minutes from time, the Frenchman’s free-kick hit a flailing Wigan arm in the wall but referee Probert waved play on.
Arsenal pressed and pressed in the dying minutes but the winner would not come.
This was certainly two points dropped but it has not done terminal damage to Wenger's title aspirations.
- Arshavin 82 Goal!
- Diaby 27
- Bendtner Goal!
- Nasri 82
- Wilshere 83 27
- Walcott 83
- Al Habsi
- Stam 75
- Caldwell Yellow Card
- Diame 72
- N'Zogbia Red Card
- Watson Goal!
- Figueroa 75
- McArthur 72