By Richard Clarke at Bloomfield Road
Arsenal kept themselves on the coat-tails of Manchester United with a highly-entertaining and hugely-important 3-1 win at Blackpool on Sunday.
There was drama before kick-off when Manuel Almunia injured himself in the warm-up and Jens Lehmann, at 41, played his first game for the Club in three years and, with it, registered 200 appearances.
Blackpool sensed weakness in the early stages but Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue scored within three minutes midway through the first half to give the visitors control.
Gary Taylor-Fletcher prodded Blackpool back in touch just after the restart but, as they had in the first half, Arsenal gradually tightened their grip on the game and fully deserved Robin van Persie’s goal with 14 minutes left.
This was by-no-means a perfect performance from Arsène Wenger’s side. But it did possess a fluency and creativity that they have lacked in recent games.
It leaves Arsenal seven points behind leaders Manchester United with a game in hand. That comes next Sunday at home to Liverpool while Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are otherwise employed in the FA Cup Semi-Final.
Given they entertain Manchester United at Emirates Stadium too, Arsenal are still part of a title race.
The margin for error is now thin but Wenger’s men are certainly still involved.
The pre-game news was all about Lehmann. The German was making his first Arsenal appearance since May 2008 and his first in top-fight football since ending his career at Stuttgart last summer.
Elsewhere Cesc Fabregas, Eboue and Diaby came back into the side. Alex Song, Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott dropped out. The first two were injured, the third made the bench.
The late drama seemed to buoy Blackpool and they forced Arsenal back in the opening minutes. However their pressure created only one real chance. It came when Charlie Adam’s corner was nodded wide by the stooping Ian Evatt. At the other end Andrey Arshavin hacked horribly wide with keeper Richard Kingson stranded.
Van Persie fired a free-kick over the bar and, minutes later, saw the keeper intervene after failing to adequately control a lofted pass from Jack Wilshere.
Arsenal seemed to be gradually gaining control and two goals in three minutes would confirm their position.
In the 17th minute, Van Persie went clear on the left and crossed low to the far post where the unmarked Diaby converted.
Then Eboue raced forward down the right, burst into the area, exchanged passes with Wilshere and thumped past Kingson from close range.
The Ivorian threw off the celebrations of his fellow players and ran to the visiting support then kissed the badge on his shirt. It was his first Premier League goal for over two years.
Blackpool were now utterly on the back foot and could have conceded a couple more before the break.
Fabregas lofted a pass into the path of Van Persie, who chested the ball down expertly but could only sidefoot straight at Kingson.
In the 36th minute, Arshavin prodded Nasri through only for the goalkeeper to block his shot. The ball was eventually recycled to Fabregas who chipped the Frenchman clear 12 yards out. He hooked his shot past Kingson but the ball bounced off the outside of the post.
Arsenal were now attacking at will and creating clear-cut opportunities all the time. Blackpool were dangerous going forward but wide open at the back
Six minutes from the whistle, Van Perise beat the offside trap but Kingson raced out of his area to pressurise. The Dutchman found Diaby who tried to cut inside but was dispossessed.
Shortly afterwards Van Persie thought he had a third but was rightly flagged offside in the build-up.
However Blackpool would finish the half like they had started it - with a chance at the near post. Taylor-Fletcher drove to the byline and Luke Varney’s touch was blocked partly by Laurent Koscielny, partly Lehmann. However it was Fabregas who cleared the vulnerable ball off the line.
Van Persie seemed to be bundled over in injury time but referee Lee Mason waved play on. He did the same thing at the start of the second half when Diaby was alleged to have handled.
Once again, Blackpool began well. Shortly afterwards Varney should have converted at the near post from Adam’s low free-kick.
In the 52nd minute, Jason Puncheon slipped the ball towards DJ Campbell but Lehmann raced out and seemed to clip the Blackpool striker. Everyone waited for a whistle but referee Mason played the advantage and Taylor-Fletcher maintained his poise to fire home.
The goal rattled Arsenal and they might have conceded twice in the minutes that followed. Firstly Koscielny seemed to bring down Taylor-Fletcher just inside the area then the unmarked Keith Southern failed to nod home at the near post following a cross by the former.
However as the game reached the three-quarter stage, Arsenal were back on top. Van Persie drove a grubber shot past the far post and then, in the 73rd minute, fizzed a fine volley beyond the same upright.
The third goal arrived three minutes later. Sebastien Squillaci mopped up danger at the back and Diaby fled forward down the right to find substitute Walcott. He crossed for Van Persie to sidefoot past Kingson.
Ten minutes from time, Fabregas nodded inches past the post.
However, in between came Lehmann’s moment. Taylor-Fletcher caught Gael Clichy in possession and put Campbell clear. The German stood up well to block.
It was Blackpool’s last chance and Arsenal cruised home. At the end, a few Arsenal players threw their shirt to the visiting supporters.
Both need to believe if Wenger’s men are going to win the title now.
But this victory and that gesture can only help.
Referee: Lee Mason
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