By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal endured festive frustration as ten-man Wolves held out for a point at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.
Arsène Wenger’s side looked set to dominate after Gervinho fired them in front after just eight minutes but, despite numerous chances, they could not grab a second.
Steven Fletcher punished them with an opportunist equaliser just before the interval and, though under incessant pressure throughout the second half as well as losing Nenad Milijas to a straight red card, Wolves held out.
Their keeper Wayne Hennessey made stunning saves from Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen and Robin van Persie twice. Referee Stuart Attwell also turned down a strong penalty appeal after Christophe Berra appeared to handle.
Van Persie and Marouane Chamakh nearly knocked each other out going for a far-post header in the final seconds. It was indicative of Arsenal’s commitment today.
Just to put the cap on an agonising afternoon, the Emirates Stadium side stay fifth when they knew a win would have put them properly, undeniably fourth for the first time this season.
Reactions at the final whistle are always indicative. Wolves manager Mick McCarthy punched the air while his players ran in jubilation to their keeper. The Arsenal players, of course, had the opposite emotion.
They must just dust themselves down and move on to QPR on New Year’s Eve.
Nine times out of ten, this amount of effort and ingenuity brings three points.
Wenger made four changes from the side that had sneaked an important win at Villa Park just before Christmas. Johan Djourou had recovered from his groin problem sufficiently to resume his role at right back. Francis Coquelin dropped to the bench. Emmanuel Frimpong was replaced by Alex Song, who had served his one-match suspension.
This game had been postponed from Boxing Day due to strike action by transport workers. The change meant Arsenal would be once more defending a 45-year unbeaten run on December 27.
And they looked dominant from the eighth minute onwards. But only after they had suffered a couple of scares – both provided by Matt Jarvis.
First he weaved inside and got a powerful shot away, only for Mertesacker to time his blocking tackle to perfection. Then the winger beat Djourou on the byline but Arsenal smuggled away his dangerous cross.
The home side used the space created from that last attack to go ahead. A quick counter saw Benayoun thread a pass through for Gervinho, who timed his run to perfection. The Ivorian raced clear, steadied himself and fired home his fourth goal of the season.
Not surprisingly, the strike turned a sluggish start into a sprint. On the quarter-hour, Gervinho prodded Van Persie clear and the sliding Dutchman hooked his shot past the far post. Unbeknown to the captain his marker, Roger Johnson, had slipped so he had more time than he realised. Seconds later, Benayoun went through but stumbled as he dithered with defenders in close attendance.
Wolves were losing but still displayed a positive approach. Ronald Zubar darted to the byline on the right-hand side and his cutback eventually found Stephen Hunt. However, the Irishman could not get his shot away.
But, as the game went past the half-hour, Arsenal were threatening to take over using their usual method - the talent of Van Persie.
First he robbed Karl Henry and, via Rosicky, set up Arteta to fire wide. Then he had a crack from distance himself and forced a fine save from Hennessey.
In the 32nd minute, he burst through and was brought down by Johnson just outside the area. Arteta could only clip the ball into hands of the keeper.
Arsenal were utterly on top and looking to takeover. But minutes later they were staring blankly at each other as Wolves equalised.
Mertesacker conceded a corner, which was cleared to Hunt on the edge of the area. His shot deflected off Vermaelen towards Fletcher, who showed admirable alertness to steer a header into the far corner.
The goal brought back all of the confidence Wolves had displayed early on but Arsenal were rejuvenated by the interval.
However, for all their energy, some of the first-half slickness was lacking.
Just before the hour, Vermaelen was booked for protesting after referee Stuart Attwell turned down his appeals for a penalty. Certainly Koscielny’s cross had hit the hand of Berra. The only issue was how much the Wolves defender knew about it.
As Arsenal’s early second-half impetus started to die out, Wenger replaced Benayoun with Andrey Arshavin.
The change helped the home side build up a proper head of steam for the first time since midway through the first half. Gervinho was clipped and Van Persie’s subsequent free-kick was tipped over then Mertesacker met Arteta’s cross with a towering header - but Hennessey pulled off a stunning save.
The game was now being played at a frantic pace and frustrations were rising on both sides. Wolves were reduced to ten men with 15 minutes left when Milijas went through on Arteta just outside the area.
Even before the reduction the visitors had been on the back foot while the introduction of Aaron Ramsey had given Arsenal something extra.
Immediately the Welshman stole the ball and Rosicky dragged a shot wide. Then, after Van Persie pulled his own effort past the post, Arshavin fired a rising, rocket of a shot inches past the upright.
As we entered the final 10 minutes, Arsenal were camped just outside the Wolves area prodding and poking for opportunities.
Van Persie saw a free-kick palmed away by Hennessey and then a near-post drive trapped by the keeper’s legs.
Wenger brought on Chamakh as Arsenal just kept battering on Wolves defence. Koscielny and Vermaelen both had near-post efforts saved by Hennessey, while the ball would not fall for Van Persie on a couple of occasions.
Arsenal kept thundering forward until the final seconds but, by now, the visitors had little offensive ambition.
When the final whistle went, Wolves were jubilant, while the Arsenal supporters did not know what to feel.
Their side had been kept at bay.
- Vermaelen Yellow Card
- Djourou 85
- Song 71 Yellow Card
- Benayoun 64
- Persie (C)
- Gervinho Goal!
- Arshavin 64
- Ramsey 71
- Chamakh 85
- Hennessey Yellow Card
- Johnson (C) Yellow Card
- Zubar 51
- Forde 71
- Hunt 85
- Milijas Red Card
- Fletcher Goal!
- Stearman 51
- Guedioura 71 Yellow Card
- Doyle 85