By Richard Clarke
Nicklas Bendtner struck a dramatic, injury-time winner as Arsenal kept their title charge on track with a vital 2-1 win at Hull on Saturday.
The Dane, who had enjoyed the archetypal 'hit and miss' week, fired into the net in the dying seconds after the home side’s 10 men had looked like frustrating Arsene Wenger's side.
The visitors took the lead in the 14th minute when Andrey Arshavin bulldozed through to fire into the far corner. However Hull were level just before the half-hour when Sol Campbell was adjudged to have bundled over Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Jimmy Bullard rammed home the penalty.
When George Boateng saw red just before half-time for a knee-high challenge on Bacary Sagna, it seemed that Arsenal would now take over.
However they only raised their game after Theo Walcott came off the bench midway through the second half.
An unmarked Arshavin hacked high over the bar and Bendtner also went close on a couple of occasions.
Arsène Wenger was a study in frustration on the touchline in the final stages as his side battered Hull seemingly for no return.
The winner finally arrived in injury time when Hull keeper Boaz Myhill punched out Denilson’s drive to Bendtner.
Call it fate, call it karma, call it grace under pressure, but Arsenal found a way to victory this afternoon when all seemed lost.
Chelsea’s early win had heaped pressure on them and they responded, just about, when it mattered.
This result leaves Wenger's men second on goal difference having played a game more than Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
The title race is still very much on.
Wenger made two changes from the side that qualified so handsomely through to the Champions League Quarter-Final with a 5-0 thumping of Porto. Thanks, in part, to Bendtner's hat-trick.
Denilson came in for Alex Song, who was completing his domestic suspension. Meanwhile Emmanuel Eboue replaced Tomas Rosicky.
Bacary Sagna (ankle) and Campbell (cramp) recovered from minor knocks to retain their places. However Rosicky’s injury kept him out while Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and William Gallas (calf) continued their absences.
Arsenal’s so-called ‘easy’ run-in was the inspiration behind much of the title-talk that surrounded them. On paper, relegation-threatened Hull were part of that equation but, at kick-off, this certainly seemed no ‘gimmee’.
The home side took the opening honours. Their methods were crude but they were offering more than Arsenal.
That is not to say the opening goal was against the run of play. It was just that it was all too easy.
On 14 minutes, Arshavin received the ball just outside the D. He was faced with two defenders but simply decided to go through them. He barged his way between the pair to find to himself one-on-one with Myhill then fired into the far corner with ease. It was his 11th goal of the season and Arsenal’s 100th.
To be honest, it was the visitors’ first real foray forward. But their efficiency stymied the home side for the following 10 minutes. Hull came into this game second from bottom and naturally their early optimism was fragile.
Sagna winged in a low cross that Bernard Mendy nervously turned behind for a corner at the far post.
Hull had all the endeavour you could wish for but they were lacking quality. They profited from their first moment of real invention. Marney’s classy flick sent Vennegoor of Hesselink clear and he tumbled under the attentions of his pursuer, Campbell. Whatever the merits of the penalty decision, replays showed the Dutchman was offside when he received the ball.
Campbell got a yellow card. Bullard’s penalty was clinical.
The equaliser finally brought Arsenal to life. They poured immediate pressure upon Hull. Diaby nodded wide from Denilson’s free-kick and Bendtner had an effort blocked.
Then, just after the half-hour, Arshavin cut inside and fired over. Clichy had claims for a penalty when he tumbled over Boateng’s outstretched leg.
Another tackle from the Dutchman would see him sent off on the whistle. In the 40th minute Boateng and Bendtner had been booked for a ‘contretemps’.
In the dying seconds, the Hull midfielder caught Sagna on the knee. Referee Andre Marriner had no choice to show Boateng a second yellow card.
The dismissal stoked the flames of a game that had been simmering for some time. Little of that had dissipated at the start of the second half.
Hull had a fire in their belly and it put Arsenal off their game. Despite their numerical advantage the visitors created nothing of note in the third quarter of the game.
Wenger knew he needed a change so he withdrew Eboue for Walcott. The Englishman's first contribution should have brought the breakthrough.
Walcott roared down the right and his cut-back was touched on by Nasri for Arshavin at the far post. The Russian was unmarked, 10 yards out but he hacked his effort high into the stands. A horrible miss.
Finally Arsenal were making their advantage tell. They started to crank up the pressure with Nasri having a shot blocked then Bendtner firing over the bar from close range.
By now, although Hull were pinned back in their own half, they could start to see the finishing line.
Wenger’s mindset was clear when he threw on Eduardo for Nasri. His team had a similar view. In the 78th minute, Walcott and Arshavin set up Bendtner eight yards out. But his shot was deflected over the bar by a couple of flying Hull bodies.
Shortly afterwards, the Russian escaped down the left and Walcott trickled a shot wide. It was a weak effort but, overall, the England international had had a massive impact since coming on.
There was a huge intake of breath around the stadium when the fourth official showed there was six minutes of injury time.
There was a stunned silence when Bendtner scored with five of them gone. Except of course for the magnificently loud visiting support.
They had never doubted this afternoon.
After a win like this, more and more people will have similar attitude to Arsenal's title chances.
Referee: Andre Marriner
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