By Richard Clarke
Arsenal's lead at the top of the Premiership is down to two points after Arsène Wenger's side were beaten 2-0 at Ewood Park this afternoon.
It is only the Gunners' fifth reverse of the Premiership campaign and the first since the 2-0 defeat at Manchester United on December 7. However it means that, after their 1-0 win at Aston Villa in a lunchtime kick-off, Sir Alex Ferguson's side are breathing down Arsenal's neck once again.
Wenger went into this game without David Seaman (hamstring), Patrick Vieira (knee), Sol Campbell (Achilles) and Ashley Cole (groin). So when stand-in skipper Martin Keown hobbled off with a suspected hamstring injury after only 18 minutes, midfielder Gilberto was forced into action as an emergency centre back.
The opening goal came three minutes after that switch and was a result of hesitant defending. Rovers had spurned two chances before Damien Duff crashed home his shot from close range. Seven minutes after half time, Tugay added a second when the visiting defence allowed him time and space to shoot from 25 yards.
Arsenal tried to muscle their way back into the game but their passing game simply was not working today. The result means that Blackburn have become the first side to do the "home and away" double over Wenger's side this season.
Before kick-off, the manager had drafted in Stuart Taylor, Edu, and Ray Parlour to replace the injured men. Rovers omitted Andy Cole in favour of Hakan Sukur, who had last played against Arsenal for Galatasaray in the Uefa Cup final of 2000.
He scored that night in the penalty shoot-out that decided the tie in the Turkish club's favour. Today he was making his first full appearance for Rovers after breaking his leg just after signing in December. That might have explained why, in the fourth minute, he mistimed an attempted header at the near post after Keith Gillespie had held off Gio Van Bronckhorst's challenge and then sent over an inviting cross.
Henry then warmed the hands of Rovers keeper Brad Friedel in the 14th minute with a now trademark free-kick. The American stopper dived away to his right to paw away the shot. It was a save that brought back memories of his role in keeping Arsenal's incessant attacking at bay in Rovers' 2-1 win at Highbury on October 26.
In the 18th minute, Friedel made another fine low save, this time it was from Edu's free-kick. However, in the build up to that goal, Keown raced into the area and dummied the ball. He immediately pulled up in pain and limped off with what looked like a hamstring injury. Gilberto came off the bench and slotted into the unusual position of centre back.
It was a blow but Arsenal hardly helped themselves in the 22nd minute. Slack defending allowed Gillespie to scamper up the right and cut the ball back to Duff on the edge of the area. He miskicked his attempted shot but Arsenal failed to clear. Tugay latched on to the loose ball but his effort hit Dwight Yorke and rebounded high in the area. It fell to Duff, who had time and space to crash home a volley from eight yards.
Rovers were rampant after that. Craig Short thumped a header just over the bar in the 29th minute then Duff's fierce left-foot strike forced a fine, flying stop from Taylor.
Yet Arsenal may have stolen an equaliser just before the break. Van Bronckhorst sent over a low corner that was missed by everybody at the near post. Friedel dived but only palmed the ball straight into the air. It looped up to Pires but the Arsenal midfielder could not force home his header and Rovers clear their lines.
Six minutes after the break, the home side doubled their lead with a simple goal. Tugay received the ball in midfield about 30 yards out, evaded Edu's challenge and was allowed the time to pick his spot from distance.
It snatched away an impetus that Arsenal may have gained from Wenger's half-time team talk. Gillespie, who was causing problems on the right, almost set up a third but Yorke could not control his header and the ball flew high and wide of Taylor's goal.
Ljungberg did fire a stinging half volley just over the bar but, in truth, Arsenal were disjointed. Their passing simply was not working so it was no surprise when Wenger brought on Francis Jeffers and Sylvain Wiltord with 22 minutes left and switched to 4-3-3.
It helped a little but the Rovers defence snuffed out all but scrambled half-chances and pot shots from distance. In truth the home side held on with few alarms.
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26 May 2004
Gresko challenges BergkampPires races forward past FlitcroftShort gets his tackle in on ParlourHenry tries his trickery on BergBergkamp evades TugayWiltord takes on Nils-Eric JohanssonGillespie hurdles van Bronckhorst's challenge
BUY THIS PICTUREArsenal goalkeeper Stuart Taylor
BUY THIS PICTURE