By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Robin van Persie registered the first hat-trick of his career as Arsenal outclassed Wigan at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
The Dutchman thumped home from Alex Song’s pass in the 21st minute and a Cesc Fabregas chip on the hour to secure the points. But it seemed that elusive treble had gone when, 10 minutes later, he hacked a penalty over the bar after the Spaniard had been brought down.
But this was destined to be Van Persie’s afternoon. In his pre-match press conference, Arsène Wenger had said the 27-year-old was “95 per cent” right after a season stymied by last summer’s World Cup and then, the old problem, injury.
This hat-trick must surely give him that final five per cent. He kept going after the penalty miss; hitting the post almost immediately. And then he finally thundered home a third five minutes from full time.
Wigan have never got a Premier League point at Arsenal and they were not likely to today. The home side dominated from the first whistle and would have doubled their final tally if Ali Al Habsi had not made a string of stunning first-half saves.
To be honest, a regulation win was expected today but Arsenal were better than that. Wenger’s men were at their controlled and incisive best.
The victory sends them second, probably only until Manchester City play later this evening, but with Van Persie in this form, Arsenal could be hitting a hot streak.
Before kick-off, Wenger switched around half a side for the visit of Wigan. Van Persie, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Gael Clichy and Fabregas all came in. Andrey Arshavin, Denilson, Kieran Gibbs, Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner all dropped out.
Five changes has been the norm in recent weeks. It was three less than the number Wenger had made for the reverse fixture on December 29. A tactic that, some thought, had disrupted his team at the DW Stadium as Sebastien Squillaci’s own goal secured Wigan a late point.
That was the last time Arsenal had conceded in a Premier League game and Wenger’s men would have been on top of the table had they held on. With the title contenders so tight at the top, only victory was good enough this afternoon.
And, straight from the off, that was never really in doubt.
The first 45 minutes were pretty much Arsenal versus Al Habsi. The Omani keeper made a decent stop from Samir Nasri’s low drive in the opening stages. It would be the first save of a busy half.
In the ninth minute, Walcott reached the byline and cut back an inviting cross to Van Persie six yards out. The Dutchman made fierce contact but Al Habsi threw himself to his right to palm the ball behind.
The game had quickly found a pattern – Arsenal pressing, Wigan being pressed.
In the 10th minute, Gary Caldwell clipped Fabregas inches outside the area and Nasri thumped the free-kick into the wall.
On the quarter-hour, Walcott reached the same byline and this time Caldwell threw himself at Fabregas’ shot and managed to block.
Wigan were so preoccupied with defending that, at this stage, they could offer nothing going forward.
And, after 21 minutes the inevitable happened.
Song sent Van Persie clear into the area on the left-hand side. The Dutchman fired home his sixth goal of the season.
Sometimes Arsenal take their foot off the gas when they take the lead. This afternoon they kept the pedal to the metal.
On the half-hour, Wilshere wriggled clear in midfield and fed Bacary Sagna on the right. His curling cross was touched back by Nasri for Fabregas. Al Habsi pulled off another super save.
Sagna then found the captain, who nutmegged Steven Caldwell and bore down on goal before being dispossessed.
In the 34th minute, Van Persie sent Walcott sprinting clear but the England international decided to square to Fabregas. The Spaniard was dispossessed by Steve Gohouri and Walcott’s follow up was saved.
Six minutes from the break, Fabregas found space in the area but Al Habsi saved again. Shortly afterwards, Arsenal brokeaway with men to spare but Nasri sidefooted straight at Al Habsi when he had other options available.
If this first-half report reads like a procession of Arsenal chances with little coming back then this reporter has done his job. Wenger’s men were utterly in control but, to use a phrase applied to Arsenal all too often, their dominance was not reflected in the scoreline.
The home side were slower off the blocks in the second period. Apart from Nasri’s deflected shot and Walcott’s effort from an acute angle there was little of note in the first 15 minutes.
Then Fabregas picked out Van Persie with an exquisite 30-yard pass over the Wigan defence. The Dutchman stole in at the far post and volleyed home.
It was exactly what Arsenal needed. The cushion settled them down and the visitors still appeared to be toothless this afternoon.
In the 70th minute, Song sent Fabregas clear in the area and Gary Caldwell hauled him down. It was a clear penalty and a clear red card.
Van Persie was given the chance for a hat-trick but hooked his effort high over the bar. The Dutchman was more than disappointed with the miss. He buried his head in the Emirates turf before playing on.
The memory did not linger long. Four minutes later, he curled a cross-shot against the outside of the post.
Five minutes from full time, Van Persie found redemption. Walcott held off his marker and tapped the ball back for the Dutchman to thump home. He celebrated like it meant something.
Three points, three goals and still none conceded in the Premier League during 2011.
Arsenal are on the march.
Referee: Kevin Friend
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