By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal lost ground in the title race after being held by a dogged Blackburn Rovers side at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Manchester United’s lunchtime comeback at West Ham had put them eight points ahead having played two games more.
Arsène Wenger’s men reduced both those figures by one in a frustrating 90 minutes but it was not enough.
The home side started well but perhaps their best chance came in the final seconds when Nicklas Bendtner’s header was cleared off the line by Michel Salgado.
Arsenal are not out of the race but, crucially, their fate is now out of their hands.
Wenger’s side lacked a cutting edge and and a little luck this evening - even Steven N'Zonzi's late dismissal could not bring about a goal. They need to put both right very quickly or their title hopes may slip away.
However, this Premier League story has been a rollercoaster all season and there are sure to be a few plot twists in the final eight games.
That Manchester United result made this game massive for Arsenal. Fortunately they had re-enforcements. Theo Walcott (ankle) returned for the first time since the win over Stoke on February 23 while Alex Song (knee) had last figured in the Carling Cup Final. Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Abou Diaby (groin) were back aswell but only made the bench.
Robin van Persie started despite having hobbled off with a knee injury playing for Holland in midweek.
This was a tea-time kick-off but British summertime had started last weekend so the floodlights were barely required early on and coats were strictly optional.
Ten minutes before kick-off, Emirates Stadium enjoyed a tribute to David Rocastle on the tenth anniversary of his death.
If Arsenal were going to win the Premier League they would require some of Rocky’s tenacity in the final nine games.
And they certainly began the right way this afternoon.
The home side conjured up three chances in the opening six minutes. Song drove wide, Ryan Nelsen’s miscue drifted past of his own post and, finally, Walcott’s near post shot was pushed wide by Paul Robinson.
Arsenal were searching for the cushion of that early goal. And they were looking in all the right places.
However, a nasty injury to Samir Nasri disrupted their flow. As the Frenchman nodded over Andrey Arshavin’s cross, Nelsen headed the Arsenal midfielder on the temple.
Nasri’s was left with an egg-like swelling and subsequently a hefty bandage. Arsenal were out of sorts for 15 minutes as a result.
Blackburn did not profit though. Only Brett Emerton’s free-kick threatened Manuel Almunia’s goal.
As we reached the midpoint of the half, Arsenal had recovered. Robinson spilled Arshavin’s drive then an unmarked Wilshere sidefooted wide from close range after more good work from Walcott on the right.
However this was not one-way traffic. David Hoilett’s deflected drive was fumbled around the post by Almunia. Then, the same striker profited on Bacary Sagna’s error and, yet again, his effort ricocheted off an Arsenal defender and went wide.
The home side continued to attack but there was a fragile feeling about the defence today. In injury time, Robinson thumped a ‘Hail Mary’ of a free-kick into the area and N’Zonzi climbed above Almunia to nod wide with the goal gaping.
But the home side finished the half on the attack. Nasri’s swivelling shot was blocked and, from the corner, Sagna drove over the bar.
The effort and the emphasis was on the Blackburn goal once again at the start of the second half but this was proving to be a frustrating evening for Arsenal.
In the 55th minute, Nasri sent Wilshere momentarily clear on the right but he chose to cross not shoot and only won a corner. When it was swung over, Koscielny’s header was clutched by Robinson on the line.
On the hour, Wenger played his trump card. He brought on Fabregas as a replacement for Arshavin.
But it was followed by a significant substitution by Steve Kean. The visiting manager introduced Jason Roberts. The burly frontman was the perfect foil for a side now playing on the break.
That was the pattern of the game - Arsenal trying to pass their way to a goal, Blackburn happy to counterattack when those moves broke down.
Van Persie’s drive was saved by Robinson but by now the visitors were starting to show a little more confidence going forward.
With 15 minutes left, N’Zonzi fired over after a spell of Blackburn pressure. It would be his last positive act in the game. Seconds later he went in two-footed on Koscielny and was shown a straight red card.
That only increased the urgency about Arsenal. With 11 minutes left, Van Persie’s backheel freed Wilshere on the left-hand byline. He cut the ball back to substitute Marouane Chamakh whose goal-bound shot was blocked by the diving Martin Olsson.
Shortly afterwards, another substitute, Bendtner, sent a towering header wide.
Arsenal were now going for it. They had no choice. Wenger’s men had dropped two points at West Brom, another two would be a big blow to their title hopes.
In the final minute, Van Persie’s corner was met firmly by the head of Bendtner at the far post. However Salgado chested the ball off the line.
Deep into injury time, Van Persie headed over from close range.
This was a huge disappointment but it is not terminal. Arsenal must just keep plugging away while hoping their luck and their sparkle returns.
Nothing has been decided yet.
Referee: Phil Dowd
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