By Chris Harris
“If you want to win the League we must go to Burnley and win.”
Arsene Wenger’s pre-match words were unequivocal but his players could not follow his orders and lost ground in the title race on Wednesday night.
Cesc Fabregas capitalised on Andre Bikey’s defensive dawdling to fire Arsenal into an early lead and the visitors could have scored two or three more in the opening 15 minutes.
But they didn’t, and Burnley hit back. Just before the half-hour, Thomas Vermaelen clipped Bikey and Graham Alexander’s penalty gave Manuel Almunia no chance.
Vermaelen, Andrey Arshavin and Fabregas all went close in an open encounter but Arsenal lost their captain to injury just before the break and could not find a winner against a spirited Burnley outfit.
A draw at Turf Moor is hardly terminal – the Clarets have only lost once at home this season – but, as Wenger pointed out, these are the kind of games champions win.
Despite a short recovery period since Sunday’s win at Liverpool, the Arsenal manager made just two changes to the side that started on Sunday – both enforced. Denilson (back) and Armand Traore (hamstring) joined a lengthy injury list so in came Abou Diaby and Mikael Silvestre. Emmanuel Eboue, back from a hamstring problem, took his place on the bench alongside a surprise inclusion – Youth Cup-winning captain Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.
Burnley away may lack the glamour of that visit to Merseyside but, as far as Arsenal’s title pretensions were concerned, it was just as important. There is no point turning it on in the second half at Anfield simply to come a cropper elsewhere in the North-West three days later.
Relaxation was certainly not an option against a Burnley side who had lost just once at home all season and claimed the prize scalp of Manchester United here in August. And lest we forget, Burnley were the scourge of the big boys – Arsenal included – in the Carling Cup last term.
The snow which dusted large chunks of the south-east had not found this corner of Lancashire but, make no mistake, it was a chilly night at Turf Moor.
Hat, scarves and gloves were abundant in the stands. On the pitch, Arsenal shook off the cold and made a quick start.
Clarke Carlisle’s miskick and Tyrone Mears’ dawdling let Fabregas in before a minute was up but the former made amends with a sliding clearance. Then a lack of communication between Vermaelen and Almunia ended with the Belgian’s back-header looping over the Spaniard, who clambered back to paw the ball against the bar.
Arsenal learned their lesson; Burnley patently did not. In the seventh minute, Bikey read Fabregas’ pass to Abou Diaby and intercepted on the edge of the area. But instead of clearing, he dithered. Fabregas stole the ball back and rolled it into the bottom corner.
Arsenal’s captain continued to enjoy himself. Two minutes later he collected Diaby’s pass on the run, juggled it over a defender and lashed a left-foot shot into the side-netting. Then Samir Nasri charged through the centre only for a heavy touch to let him down at the crucial moment. And a purple patch for the visitors concluded when Nasri touched a crossfield pass to Arshavin and the Russian slammed a low shot against the post.
Arsenal could have been three up inside 15 minutes. In the event, they had to settle for one. Burnley sensed a way back into the game.
They found it just before the half-hour. Bikey was transformed from villain to hero when he beat Vermaelen to a 50:50 challenge inside the box. The Belgian caught the Cameroonian and Alexander smashed the penalty down the centre.
Arshavin almost provided an instant riposte. Fabregas skipped away from two challenges and slid the ball into the Russian’s path. Jensen was alert, narrowing the angle and then blocking the shot.
But Burnley were more than matching their guests. The impressive Steven Fletcher brought runners into the game and Arsenal’s defence was turned far too often for their liking. Only a vital interception from William Gallas denied the Scot a tap-in after Wade Elliott had escaped down the left and crossed low into the six-yard box.
Fabregas, the game’s most impressive performer, sadly did not last beyond the 42nd minute. He walked gingerly to the touchline and Aaron Ramsey entered the fray.
Despite losing their captain, Arsenal finished the half strongly only to see Jensen deny them twice in a minute. First the Dane blocked Arshavin’s close-range prod after Silvestre’s picked out the Russian’s run. Then Vermaelen powered a header towards goal only to see Jensen tip the ball over brilliantly.
The second half started in far more scrappy fashion with Gallas, Fletcher and Bikey lining up to fail from long distance. But slowly and surely, Arsenal’s passing found its zip and purpose.
As the hour approached, Alex Song picked out Nasri 30 yards out and he found Theo Walcott in acres of space. The England man, still lacking sharpness after his injury lay-off, fired high and wide.
Chris Eagles went much, much closer at the other end, bursting past Silvestre and Nasri on the right before hammering a shot against the near post. Then Fletcher span and shot just over.
The same man had the ball in the net with 20 minutes remaining but he was thwarted – incorrectly – by the linesman’s flag.
By now Eduardo had replaced Walcott and he almost latched onto Nasri’s through-ball with 13 minutes left. Once again the hulking frame of Jensen denied Arsenal. Moments later Nasri and Arshavin picked their way through the Burnley defence but the latter’s cut-back just evaded Eduardo.
You could make a case for either side taking the spoils as the clock ticked down.
Eagles fizzed one over from 20 yards and Arsenal probed on the edge of the Burnley area, looking for that killer pass. But the closest the visitors came was Eduardo’s free-kick which forced Jensen into yet another save with two minutes left.
Referee: Mike Dean
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