By Richard Clarke
Having barged their way back into the title race with a win at Chelsea last weekend, Arsenal kept up the pressure at the top with a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Wigan on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger’s side were below par for much of the game and were handed the crucial goal in the 16th minute when an error allowed Emmanuel Adebayor to slot home from close range.
Wigan will argue they deserved a point. Manuel Almunia made a couple of stunning saves and there were claims for a penalty when Kolo Toure challenged Antonio Valencia. However Arsenal had the better chances, hit the post twice and exerted more control as the game went on.
In addition, they had Robin van Persie in sparkling form. On another day the Dutchman might have bagged a brace. Certainly he was most inventive player on show this afternoon.
But, despite his notable contribution, on the whole this game was forgettable fare. Still, this was the sort of Premier League win that Arsenal have failed to gather in with consistency this season.
As nervous as this victory was, it garnered the same amount of points Wenger’s men had taken from Stamford Bridge last Sunday.
The manager has admitted his side are still in the process of rebuilding their confidence and this win will have helped. Arsenal have a long journey to make and this was a tentative first step on the road back.
Wenger made one enforced change from the side that had won so crucially at Chelsea last Saturday. Even that was a straight swap at centre half with William Gallas (calf) dropping out and Kolo Toure coming back into the side after recovering from a similar injury.
Otherwise it was the same team with the same formation as, for the second time in a month, Arsenal looked to build on a win against one of the Big Four.
However the victory over Manchester United back on November 8 had been a false dawn. This was very much Arsenal’s second chance and maybe their last if they were to be any more than also-rans in the title shake-up.
There were concerning signs of a previous lethargy in the opening few minutes. Despite having been beaten 3-0 in the Carling Cup on November 11, Wigan showed admirable ambition.
In the opening minutes a shot from Wilson Palacios was diverted on by Emile Heskey and Almunia had to re-adjust to save low to his left.
Games turn on such incidents and Arsenal would make Wigan pay in the 16th minute, albeit with a touch of good fortune.
Cesc Fabregas prodded a regulation ball forward which seemed to go through Alex Song and his marker Titus Bramble on the edge of the area. Adebayor was waiting just behind them and had the simple job of collecting then stroking a shot past Chris Kirkland. A gift of a goal.
Van Persie nearly added another soon afterwards but Emmerson Boyce blocked his shot. However the Dutchman claimed the Barbados international had nudged him as he burst into the area.
Despite that Arsenal were not at their best. It was not exactly a poor performance just rather flat and lacking in invention.
Just before the half-hour, Almunia had to make another fine save from Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian had been flagged offside before he stole in at the far post to meet Ryan Taylor’s free-kick but that the keeper did not know that at the time.
A couple of minutes later Samir Nasri was replaced by Emmanuel Eboue. Earlier the Frenchman had been subject to a clattering challenge from Palacios. As a result, Nasri received treatment, the Honduran received a yellow card.
The change left Arsenal somewhat unbalanced in midfield and that was in keeping with their display. The home side had the goal but they hardly were dominating proceedings.
Two minutes before the break, Adebayor slammed an effort high over the bar. Along with the goal, Van Persie’s blocked shot and an early Nasri drive, that was the sum total their first-half chances. It was hardly the overwhelming Arsenal of old.
However, in injury time they did carve out another clear-cut chance. Denilson raced down the right and cut the ball back for Adebayor. His rasping low shot was touched onto the post by Kirkland. It would have been harsh on Wigan had it gone in.
The visitors started the second half on the front foot. Taylor fizzed a free-kick through a crowded area and then Emile Heskey nodded weakly at Almunia from five yards when he should have scored.
Arsenal were stung and the crowd were becoming restless. The team reacted with Van Persie firing wide and Bacary Sagna’s header forcing Kirkland into action at the near post.
Just before the hour, Wigan claimed a penalty when Toure challenged Henri Camara in the area but referee Steve Bennett was unmoved. Arsenal went up the other end and nearly scored. Denilson won the ball on the right and passed square to Van Persie. The Dutchman won himself a little space and curled a low shot inches past Kirkland’s right-hand post. A wonderful piece of work.
Van Persie was now Arsenal’s main attacking outlet. In the 63rd minute he waltzed around Bramble only to be hauled down by Lee Cattermole on the edge of the area. The 25-year-old took the free-kick himself and fired it just over the bar.
For the first time in the game, Arsenal were exerting real control and in the 65th minute they were nearly rewarded when Denilson hammered a shot against the post from the edge of the area.
However Wigan were not finished. Heskey’s near-post header was diverted wide. The resulting corner fell to Mario Melchiot eight yards out and the veteran defender sent in a powerful shot on the turn. Almunia threw himself at the ball and clawed it away from point-blank range. A stunning stop.
Suddenly the game had found its spark. Adebayor had two excellent chances to get the killer second and, following a scramble from a corner, Sagna volleyed wastefully wide.
However Arsenal were still finding it impossible to keep Wigan at bay. With 16 minutes left, Heskey found Valencia in space of the right and he slashed his shot wide.
By now, Steve Bruce had brought on striker Amr Zaki as he pushed for an equaliser. As dangerous as the visitors were, Arsenal remained the side more likely to score. In the dying minutes a Fabregas corner nearly crept in at the near post.
But, with the score at 1-0, Wigan still had hope and desire. In the 90th minute, Heskey powered a header a few inches over the bar.
The visitors continued to press and Arsenal endured a nerve-jangling three minutes of injury time.
When the whistle came, it was a blessed relief but, from an Arsenal perspective, the points were secure.
Referee: Steve Bennett
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