By Richard Clarke
Despite rumours to the contrary, there is life in Arsenal’s Premier League season.
Defeats to Manchester United and Chelsea in eight days left Arsène Wenger’s side playing catch-up before a crucial game with in-form Liverpool this evening.
While never at their best, a resilient Arsenal rolled up their sleeves and responded with a rejuvenating win.
The only goal came 18 minutes from time when Tomas Rosicky’s inviting cross was RSVP’d by Abou Diaby’s header at the far post.
By way of celebration, half the Arsenal side piled on top of the Frenchman.
It was relief to the power of 10.
This was Wenger’s 300th Premier League win and the 450th of his Arsenal career. But the only stat to manager cares less about is the distance between his team and top spot.
Chelsea’s defeat at Everton and Manchester United’s draw at Aston Villa mean that gap is down to six points. Meanwhile Arsenal have now opened an eight-point divide between themselves and Liverpool in fourth.
This result can not make up for the disappointments of the past two Sundays but it does suggest Wenger’s optimism has credence.
It seems we have a three-horse title race once again.
Wenger made a couple of changes from the side beaten at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Bendtner started his first game since limping off against Tottenham on October 31. The Dane was the focal point of the attack so Andrey Arshavin dropped to the left flank. Meanwhile Emmanuel Eboue was back in the starting XI for the first time since December 19. The Ivorian had come off the bench in the defeats against Manchester United and Chelsea. Before that, he had been in Ghana for the Africa Cup of Nations. As a result of those inclusions, Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna dropped to the bench.
In the early stages, the atmosphere off the pitch was indicative of results on it. The travelling fans were in full voice, the home supporters were relatively muted. Arsenal’s season had been shaken by those two successive defeats while Liverpool were unbeaten in their last seven Premier League games.
Neither side could afford defeat and that anxiety affected the opening quarter.
The opening minutes were lively enough however with the two sides exchanging half-chances from right wing free-kicks. First Steven Gerrard’s ball ricocheted off Bacary Sagna and Manuel Almunia had to make a flying interception then, at the other end, William Gallas nodded over from a fine delivery from Cesc Fabregas.
After that the game fell into a malaise. Arsenal had enough of the ball but perhaps there was a nagging fear of conceding on the break as they had against Chelsea and Manchester United. Certainly they were more reticent to go forward.
The chance that broke down the mental barrier came in the 20th minute. The stumbling Arshavin sent Bendtner clear on the right of the area. The Dane had a glimpse of goal but slashed his shot over the bar. Soon afterwards Nasri saw a goal-bound effort charged down for Pepe Reina flapped at a cross and Arshavin blazed over.
At the other end, Maxi Rodriguez latched on to a loose ball on the edge of the area and cracked his effort high.
The flurry of chances did not last. It did not help that Wenger was forced to make a change just after the half-hour. Nasri had gone to ground for no reason early on and immediately Rosicky was sent out to warm up. Eventually the French midfielder acceded to his injury.
To be honest, that was about it for the opening half. Arsenal were far from fluent and, on a freezing North London night, the first 45 minutes never got above lukewarm.
However the opening seconds of the second period would promise much more. In fact the first 15 minutes were pretty much end-to-end.
Arshavin reached the byline early on but blasted his shot high into the sidenetting. Lucas Leiva nearly found an immediate response however his fierce shot flew inches over the bar.
The chances were starting to come now yet nerves still seemed to be affecting both sides this evening. David N’gog raced clear on to Gerrard’s chip through. The Frenchman had a yard on Clichy and Gallas but the latter produced a wonderfully-timed challenge to slid the ball away at the crucial moment. Such interventions are fast becoming a trademark this season for Gallas.
Seconds later, Rosicky went clear on the left for an instant but his touch was too heavy and, just before the hour, the galloping Bendtner tried to steer home a shot only for Reina to block with his legs.
All of a sudden it seemed a game of football seemed to have broken out.
Bendtner went down under Daniel Agger’s challenge but referee Howard Webb booked the Dane for simulation. A couple of minutes later the striker laid the ball back for Rosicky to crack a drive inches over the bar.
This game was now an entirely different animal. The tension of the first half remained but invention had been added. Neither side were functioning at their best but Arsenal had the edge.
Walcott substituted Arshavin with 23 minutes left. Wenger had now replaced two of his front men and the only one remaining who was struggling for fitness.
It seemed that Bendtner would have to soldier on this evening.
And he did.
In the 72nd minute, the 22-year-old found himself surrounded and under pressure in the area but retained the presence of mind to feed a clever ball to Rosicky on the right. The Czech midfielder had time to pick his target. His chose Diaby at the far post. The Frenchman eluded his marker to power home a header. It was his seventh goal of the season and undoubtedly the most important.
In the wake of the goal, Liverpool finally threw off their shackles. They piled forward but there were only two heart-in-mouth moments before injury time – when Gerrard went down in the box and when substitute Ryan Babel slipped his marker before firing goalwards from 25 yards.
It was a dipping, swerving, curling effort but Almunia touched it on to the bar. A pivotal save.
The second half had been dramatic enough but there was one more twist.
In the dying embers of injury time Gerrard somehow won at free-kick five yards outside the area. Fabregas was booked for protesting the decision and then the Englishman’s effort hit the Spaniard’s outstretched hand as he jumped in the wall.
Liverpool complained when the whistle blew seconds later but no one could dispute the character of this victory tonight.
Referee: Howard Webb
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