By Richard Clarke
Arsenal scrapped their way to a deserved draw at Blackburn on Sunday afternoon.
Arsène Wenger's side took the lead in the 18th minute when Robin van Persie slammed home from close range after a goal-mouth melee. Despite persistent Blackburn pressure, the visitors seemed set for all three points until the 71st minute when David Dunn's long-range drive slipped through the hands of Jens Lehmann and went into the net off the upright.
It was hard on the German keeper and the Arsenal defence which had stood firm for the majority of this frantic, hard-fought affair.
Blackburn had Ryan Nelsen dismissed in the dying stages. The New Zealander had earned two of the nine bookings meted out by referee Alan Wiley.
Having led for so long, Wenger will have been disappointed with this result initially however, on later reflection, he is sure to realise this was a decent point and a mature display.
On this showing, Blackburn are capable of troubling anyone at Ewood Park.
The buzz in the press box before kick-off was due to Eduardo's selection. The Croatian striker, a big money transfer from Dinamo Zagreb in the summer, had looked excellent in pre-season and, before the game, Wenger admitted that throwing in the 24-year-old for his debut at a tough place like Blackburn would be a learning experience for both manager and player.
Both the flank players at Prague - Emmanuel Eboue (ankle) and Tomas Rosicky (knee) - had picked up injuries against Sparta. Therefore Alex Hleb moved back onto the left hand side of midfield and Theo Walcott was brought in on the right.
It was mid-August and, for Arsenal, the Premier League season was only 90 minutes old but it felt like November at Ewood Park this afternoon - wet, windy and grey.
By contrast the game was colourful. The opening passages were full of the pace and passion you expect at Blackburn these days.
You could tell as early as the fifth minute it would be blood and thunder kind of affair. Lehmann came out to punch away a cross from Brett Emerton and collided with Kolo Toure. He was down injured for some time clutching his shoulder.
Both sides had half chances in the opening quarter but it was Arsenal who took the lead in the 18th minute with the first real opportunity of the game. Fabregas won the ball in the area and nudged it wide to Clichy on the left.
His cross was deep and eventually fell to Eduardo who close-range shot was saved by Brad Freidel. Fabregas then swung his foot at the ball but miscued and it was left to Van Persie to drill home a shot into the corner from the edge of the area.
It was perhaps harsh on the balance of play up to this point but Arsenal have shown a reassuring ruthlessness this season when chances have offered themselves.
However their security would be rattled four minutes later when William Gallas hurdled a regulation challenge from Roque Santa Cruz and then fell into a heap when he landed on the other side. Philippe Senderos came off the bench to replace him.
The change only fuelled the fire in Blackburn bellies. In the 27th minute, Emerton played an angled ball to Matt Derbsyhire in space on the edge of area. Toure raced across to put in a smothering challenge.
Then David Bentley's free-kick was nodded back into the area by Christopher Samba and Nelsen rose at the near post to head the ball against the outside the of post.
Arsenal were in the eye of a storm now. Blackburn had fought their way back into the game and were peppering the visiting penalty area with crosses.
However as half-time approach, Arsenal broke out of their defensive shell and had three good chances to extended their lead.
In the 38th minute Nelsen and Stephen Warnock got into a muddle allowing Walcott to sprint through. However the 18-year-old opted to square the ball to Van Persie when had clear sight of goal and a good chance went begging.
A couple of minutes before the break Fabregas floated a corner to the far post. Senderos met it with a firm, goalbound header but Samba blocked.
Finally Eduardo, who had had a couple of enterprising pot-shots himself, sent the sprinting Flamini through in the area. Warnock intervened with a wonderfully-timed challenge.
Arsenal went into the break not exactly comfortable but with a measure of control.
As you would expect, Blackburn flew out of the traps in the second half. They pinned Arsenal back but, although Santa Cruz flicked a header wide, they failed to trouble Lehmann until the hour when Bentley's swirling cross was nodded goalward by Derbyshire. The German clutched the ball on the line.
Senderos nearly put Arsenal further ahead when he nodded a Van Persie free-kick inches wide.
But, at the other end, the visitors had a huge let-off when Samba met a corner with a sliding shot. Fabregas handled the ball on the line but, unbeknown to the Spaniard, referee Wiley had blown for a foul.
Overall it had been a spiky affair and Gael Clichy had just picked up the seventh booking of the match when Blackburn got their equaliser. Dunn's effort was little more than a dip from distance but it slipped through the hands of Lehmann and bounced in of the post. A bad error from the Arsenal keeper.
A couple of minutes later the former Birmingham midfielder blocked a goalbound drive from Fabregas after substitute Nicklas Bendtner had got round Freidel and crossed low into the area.
With so many players on bookings there was always the possibility of a red card. It came when seven minutes left when Van Persie burst through and Nelsen hauled him down. Wiley had little option.
In the final minute of normal time Bendtner thumped a shot wide. It was the final opportunity of a game which may not have pleased the purist but was a wonderful example of traditional top-flight English football.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Gallas 24
- Walcott 73
- Flamini Yellow Card
- Eduardo 64 Yellow Card
- Persie Goal! Yellow Card
- Senderos 24
- Denilson 64
- Bendtner 73
- Nelsen Yellow Card Red Card
- Samba Yellow Card
- Dunn Goal!
- Savage Yellow Card
- Derbyshire 85
- Cruz 88
- Ooijer 85
- McCarthy 88