By Chris Harris
Arsenal look destined for a place in next season's Champions League after coming from behind to beat Bolton on a tense afternoon at Emirates Stadium.
The visitors had their noses in front in the race for fourth place when former Gunner Nicolas Anelka fired them ahead after 10 minutes. Incredibly, it was the 14th time Arsenal had fallen behind at their new home this season.
But they hit back. Tomas Rosicky stole in to equalise on the half-hour mark and Cesc Fabregas raised the roof with his first Premiership goal for almost a year. The Spaniard struck just 30 seconds into the second half and Arsenal could have had more as their confidence came flooding back.
Ivan Campo's dismissal eight minutes from time killed off Bolton's lingering hopes, leaving Arsenal five points ahead of their opponents with a game in hand. Before the game Arsene Wenger said his team would be "80 per cent" sure of qualifying for the Champions League if they beat Bolton. It would be a major shock if they failed now.
As expected Rosicky returned to the starting line-up after missing the 0-0 draw at Newcastle with a virus. Otherwise Arsenal were unchanged from their trip to Tyneside with only their three long-term absentees unavailable - Thierry Henry (groin/stomach) Robin van Persie (foot) and Theo Walcott (shoulder).
There was a real buzz around the ground before kick-off. A month ago this fixture seemed unlikely to carry much significance but, since then, the goals and points have dried up for Arsenal while Bolton have found their form. Far from a forgone conclusion, Arsenal's pursuit of a Champions League place was suddenly in the balance.
The pendulum almost swung further towards Bolton as early as the second minute. The first corner of the game was scuffed half-clear by Emmanuel Adebayor. E-Hadji Diouf had time to measure his shot from just inside the box but curled the ball over. Either way, Arsenal had been warned.
The home side found their stride. Fabregas charged through the centre but his deft flick failed to find Adebayor. Then Gilberto's dinked chip into the box was cleared acrobatically by Nicky Hunt as Adebayor lurked with intent. Not for the first time, Arsenal were making the early running. Not for the first time, they still conceded the first goal.
Hunt's long free-kick into the Arsenal box didn't appear that threatening but it caused havoc. Kolo Toure and Kevin Davies missed the first header, Kevin Nolan nodded the loose ball towards the far post, Jens Lehmann clawed it away and Anelka, unmarked in front of goal, fired his shot over the line via the hand of William Gallas. It wasn't a patch on the former Gunner's magnificent double at the Reebok earlier this season but it hurt Arsenal just as much.
This was a real test. But Arsenal responded. They may have been goal-shy in recent weeks but they certainly haven't been shot-shy. This time last week West Ham were bombarded with 29 shots. Now Wenger's team started racking up another tally of goal attempts.
Adebayor should have equalised in the 13th minute after collecting Ljungberg's pass and racing into the box, but Jaaskelainen blocked with his legs. Nolan fouled Ljungberg and he picked himself up to fire a wonderful free-kick inches over the bar. The Swede looked the most likely to get Arsenal back on terms.
But there was still danger at the other end. Bolton's prowess in the air is no secret but Arsenal struggled to contain it. Davies caused problems whenever the ball was launched into the box and Gallas had to make a vital headed clearance after the Bolton striker had nodded back across goal.
While Bolton's threat was sporadic, Arsenal probed constantly. Ljungberg was inches away from connecting after Fabregas fizzed a low cross towards the six-yard box. Then Toure, who has been threatening to score with a long-range blockbuster all season, hammered a 30-yarder too close to Jaaskelainen. The Ivorian tried his luck again before half time but was thwarted once more.
By then, Arsenal were level. Adebayor's chipped ball across the box shouldn't have sent alarm bells ringing in the Bolton defence but Hunt was caught daydreaming, Rosicky nipped in and bundled the ball past Jaaskelainen. The Emirates breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The goal would have made the home dressing room a much happier place at half time. And the second half was only 30 seconds old when spirits were lifted even higher. Gilberto's pass wrong-footed Gary Speed and Fabregas collected possession. He sauntered into the box, kept his composure and found the corner of the net.
The Spaniard's celebrations were a joy to behold and you could hardly blame him. Fabregas started the season with a brace in Zagreb but had drawn a blank ever since. It was not for the want of trying though: in the Premiership alone the 19-year-old had fired 62 shots on goal before today's game. Fabregas' smile said it all - at last!
In the broader scheme of things it was the perfect start to the second half for Arsenal. And they could have wrapped up the points there and then as Bolton struggled to regroup. Alexander Hleb rolled a shot wide and Rosicky went close as the home side swarmed all over their opponents.
Abou Diaby should have ended Bolton's resistance with 20 minutes left. Adebayor, full of running once again, got to the byline on the left and picked out the substitute with his cross. Somehow Diaby nodded wide of the target with only Jaaskelainen to beat.
Toure headed Fabregas' free kick wide shortly afterwards and, as Bolton pushed forward, you sensed that Arsenal may yet pay for their profligacy. But the back four and Lehmann stood firm and Campo's dismissal, for a second bookable offence, effectively sealed Bolton's fate.
There was still time for Diaby to sidefoot straight at Jaaskelainen with no defender in attendance and substitute Julio Baptista screaming for a path. But ultimately it didn't matter. Arsenal are back on course for a place among Europe's elite.
Referee: Rob Styles
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.