Date: 21st January 2010 at 12:34pm
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Having played Bolton just three days ago, it seemed a tad strange to be welcoming them to Chez Gooner for the return game. January can often bring up seriate matches with the F.A and League Cups coming into full swing at the same time as a busy league schedule, but to meet a time in consecutive league encounters is a situation I`m not sure I`ve encountered before. It certainly provided food for thought pre match, Bolton will always rely on making games against us “needley” shall we say and it was interesting to see if any festering resentments from Sunday were to be taken into the match. Pre match the mood was of confidence and bluster, on departing the Arsenal Tavern just before kick off, we all made a pact to go for an after match drink if Arsenal were top of the league come 10pm. We entered the ground in little doubt that that meeting would eventuate. The game also represented a mini anniversary of sorts for me too, it having been eight years to the day that Arsenal played a game in Britain without my attendance. (Leeds away in January 2002 for the stattos).

Come kick off time large gaps were evident in the stands, doubtless due to the fact that Oxford Circus station was closed some time in mid afternoon and never reopened. The atmosphere was somewhat vapid, with confidence of victory veering into the territory of complacency. It was a mood that appeared to have permeated its way through the team too. Having coped rather easily with Bolton`s high balls into the box on Sunday, Arsenal found themselves a goal down on seven minutes as they displayed a good deal of visible panic in dealing with Taylor`s lofted left wing free kick, Clichy spooned the ball into the air with an unconvincing hashed clearance, Kevin Davies then won the knock down and the ball dropped invitingly to Gary Cahill to turn and whip the ball into the net. An early setback, but not an insurmountable one at this stage of the game you felt. In fact, the most pressing concern appeared to be that we would need at least three goals in response to go top. The Gunners response was swift, with Cesc Fabregas looking to roam forward at every opportunity. After Arshavin drifted in from the left, Tomas Rosicky found Fabregas in the area in a tiny pocket of space but Juusi Jaaskelainen was out smartly to smother the Spaniard`s close range effort. The Gunners were facing a well organised Bolton side but seemed to have developed a number of ways of trying to circumnavigate them. Diaby won the ball deep in his own half and quickly clipped an immaculate cross field pass into the path of Eduardo, who controlled on the edge of the box and hit a quick, rising shot narrowly over the Trotters bar. Fabregas again was the heart of Arsenal`s next chance, driving Arsenal forwards through sheer force of will, he darted out to the left and evaded two challenges before teeing up Arshavin, whose tame shot bounced just wide.

But Bolton sensed weakness in the home defence and weren`t afraid to try and exploit. Matt Taylor`s free kick had Almunia at full stretch to beat the ball away from the bottom corner. But it wasn`t long before the visitors did assume a shock two goal lead. Matt Taylor`s low corner was again met with a poor clearance, this time from Fabregas, the ball fell to Lee Chung Yong in the penalty area, Denilson had committed to tackle just as Lee cleverly shifted his feet, causing Denilson to take him down with a rash tackle. A clear penalty. Taylor stepped up and buried his penalty low, despite Almunia getting his fingertips to it. Most around me loudly berated Almunia for not saving it. The criticism of the goalkeeper is getting incredibly tiring now. Criticise him when he makes a mistake, but I can`t think of another set of fans in the league so spiteful to one of their own players that they gleefully criticise him for not saving a penalty. Earlier this season, Almunia endured a great personal tragedy and I have not heard one single word from one single Arsenal fan of compassion or understanding. That maybe fair enough, we don`t know the players personally after all. But now imagine if Eduardo or Fabregas had suffered the same. Almunia hasn`t put a foot wrong for a number of weeks but the public have already decided they don`t like him, so it matters not. Supporters` affections are not always as malleable as some would have you believe.

Arsenal`s character was now being sorely tested and their title credentials were on the line. Words such as “choked” and “bottled” were beginning to appear under my breath. One thing was for certain, we needed a goal before half time. Once again, it was Arsenal`s captain Cesc Fabregas determined to pick up the reins and drive his team forward, careering into tackles and pushing into the box with impunity. It was his mazy run from the centre of midfield that set up Eduardo in the area, but he produced an unconvincing finish straight into the arms of Jaaskelainen when a more confident striker would have buried the chance with force and conviction. There`s something about Eduardo that does not convince me at all at the moment, psychologically he looks very insipid. Where once he ghosted into the box and finished without raising so much as an eyebrow, now his play in the box is permeated by self-doubt. The Gunners appeared to be running out of ideas with half time looming. In fact, the next opportunity came as a result of Bolton cocking the gun and placing it to their own temple. Fabregas swung in a free kick which Mark Davies headed towards his own goal, the ball bouncing off the junction between crossbar and post before bouncing into the grateful arms of Jaaskelainen. The game looked to be slipping away but there was one player showing enough fighting spirit for all eleven men. Once more Fabregas picked the ball up from the left, powered his way past Muamba and sauntered to the edge of the box before releasing Rosicky to his right, Rosicky resisted the urge to shoot first time, instead touching the ball past Robinson before unleashing a fierce shot which neat a dumbfounded Jaaskelainen at his near post. So true and quick was the shot that the Finnish keeper did not twitch a nerve. It was a neat snapshot of the kind of incisive play Rosicky is capable of.

From there I never doubted Arsenal would go on to win the game. As with Bendtner`s strike in Liege on the stroke of half time, you felt that halving the deficit before the interval would be the elixir Arsenal needed to spring back into life. They could have been level before half time, Rosicky it was again who found space between Bolton`s midfield and defence and found Fabregas lurching on the left again, Cesc bent a shot towards the far corner which Jaaskelainen was equal to with a diving save. The feeling at half time was somewhat more relaxed owing to the goal; you felt that the second half wasn`t so much going to be the Alamo but the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.` “Cannon to right of them/ Cannon to left of them/ Cannon in front of them/ Volley’d and thunder’d/ Storm’d at with shot and shell/ Boldly they rode and well/ Into the jaws of Death/ Into the mouth of Hell/ Rode the six hundred.” The coveted equaliser arrived in the 52nd minute and when it did, it was with some controversy. Gallas, possibly the only player in the Arsenal side that matches Fabregas` distaste for defeat, marched forwards and lost control of the ball, Mark Davies and Gallas competed for the 50-50, Davies putting his body on the line with a hard sliding tackle and Gallas standing his ground. Davies collapsed in agony but the referee waved play on. Two years ago, Arsenal would have been naïve and put the ball out. Not anymore. The ball muddled its way to Arshavin, he smuggled it through to Fabregas, who had a defender and a tight angel ahead of him, took his chance like a true striker, squeezing the ball between Jaaskelainen`s legs and into the bottom corner for an equaliser.

Much has been made of Gallas` challenge and my feeling is that it should have been pulled up for a foul by virtue of the fact that Davies nicked the ball away from Gallas before he got there. The furore around the malice of the challenge is misdirected. It was a 50-50 ball; Davies threw his body into a full blooded sliding challenge and Gallas merely stood his ground. Had Gallas nicked the ball a millisecond earlier, it`s just as feasible that he would have been leaving the pitch on a stretcher as Davies would have mowed him down. It was a 50-50 and Gallas stood his ground, like I say, a free kick as far as I`m concerned because Davies nicked the ball just before Gallas. But all of the force from the challenge comes from one place. Gallas` biggest crime was not getting out of the way. I feel for Mark Davies, I honestly do and I hope his injury is not too severe. I think Bolton can feel aggrieved that a foul wasn`t given. But aside from my sympathies for Davies, do I feel sympathy for Bolton? Not a jot. I`ve watched enough Arsenal players disappear down the tunnel on stretchers at the Reebok. This is a sword Bolton have lived by long enough. Remember April 2003 when three Arsenal players were stretchered off in fifteen minutes (two had to miss the F.A. Cup Final as a result). Did you hear a consolatory word from the press, the players, the staff or the fans of Bolton Wanderers? How many of your points were met with a breezy reply of “it`s a man`s game, son” and “Arsenal don`t like it up ’em!” As for Coyle`s assertion we should have put the ball out of play. Bollocks. That is a naivety Arsenal have frustratingly succumbed to time and again over the years. As Lord Tennyson said, “Forward, the Light Brigade!’/ Was there a man dismay’d? /Not tho’ the soldier knew/ Someone had blunder’d/ Their’s not to make reply/ Their’s not to reason why/ Their’s but to do and die/ Into the valley of Death.” And to clarify, Arsenal fans were not cheering Davies` injury, but jeering at Jaaskelainen who was complaining bitterly to the Arsenal fans in the East Stand Lower Tier that the ball should have been kicked into touch. Every gesticulation and furrow browed expression was met with ironic cheers, we were not cheering the fact that a player was injured.

Bolton looked rattled and Arsenal nearly moved into an immediate lead, Fabregas it was again at the heart and soul of the move, nudging his side forward with iron will. He careered forward and played a deft one-two with Arshavin on the edge of the area, Fabregas unleashed a left foot shot which appeared to be sailing for the top corner but Jaaskelainen brilliantly flung out a left hand to divert the ball over the crossbar. (Small observation, does anyone have any idea as to the significance of our throw ins? In the last two games it`s notable that the full backs don`t take them anymore, but the wingers do, no matter how far down our pitch they are won). It didn`t take long for the Gunners to power their way into the lead. Fabregas` arcing corner hit the leaping Vermaelen on the shoulder, Diaby kept the ball alive, nudging it back to Vermaelen, who let the ball drift across his body before spanking it in off the post with that sweet left foot. The ground erupted in a swathe of relief and delight. I don`t think anybody would have expected us to have the game turned around before the 70th minute. With the energy expended on rescuing the game, Arsenal`s level understandably dropped and credit to Bolton, who came forward with belief that they could still score. The long ball to Kevin Davies causing visible panic in the Arsenal area. Davies won most of his headers and with Tamir Cohen drifting around the box largely undetected, the explosion of relief had been replaced by a cacophony of nerves inside the stadium. Though Arsenal were unlucky not to get a penalty when Fabregas was felled by Jaaskelainen in the area for the second time in a week. It matters not whether the ball was under Fabregas` control when the foul occurred, the rules make no reference to that. A foul is a foul. There again, given Gallas` foul in the build up to the equaliser, we are perhaps not in as much a position to complain on this occasion.

But Arsenal eventually grabbed the goal that simultaneously made the game safe and placed on the lofty perch of first place in the league standings. Once again, it was sheer force of will that guided the goal. Fabregas driving forwards and nicking the ball through a crowd of bodies into Eduardo, he buffeted the ball through a sea of Bolton legs to Arshavin and the Russian demonstrated great composure to shift the ball inside Cahill before belting the ball past Jaaskelainen for his first goal since his impressive winner at Anfield. The goal, much like the equaliser, was an example of Arsenal adding some steel to their passing game. Instead of brushing the ball around at 1mph in front of a packed defence, as they did for much of last season, they buffeted and muscled the ball into a goal scoring position, barging their way through opponents with a mixture of movement and determination. The Gunners might have added some frosting to the cake in injury time when Arshavin brilliantly turned Steinsson and raced towards goal with Walcott in space to his right. But Arshavin was in one of those situations where it`s the thinking that kills you, he had too much time to ponder and, seeing Muamba`s body was already veered to his left to attend to Walcott, Arshavin dummied his way past but the ball was too close to the keeper at that stage and Jaaskelainen was out sharply with a smothering save.

The final whistle was met with the welcome tones of Curtis Mayfield`s “Move On Up”, a song usually reserved for great results at the stadium. The song`s prevailing refrain, “Move On Up/ Keep On Pushin`/ Your dreams are your only schemes/ so keep on wishing” seemed extra poignant. What this game has showed once and for all is that team`s talent is finally being married with a steel and desire to win. This is the second time this season Arsenal have won from a 0-2 deficit. We appear to have a Plan B, for though Bolton defended in numbers and were well organised, the Gunners, driven on by an increasingly influential captain as well as player, were able to bulldoze their way through the wall ahead. None of the goals were particularly artistic, save maybe for Rosicky`s drive, but they arrived via sheer power in the box, bullying Bolton into submission. Arsenal have faced Everton and Bolton twice in their last three games- two of the league`s toughest sides- and have found ways through in all of them, snatching seven points from games that might have left us with three or four a few years ago. Arsenal forced their way back into the game and have forced themselves into serious contention for the title just after the half way point of the season. Lord Tennyson perhaps put it best, “Half a league, half a league/ Half a league onward/ All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred/ “Forward the light brigade!”/ “Charge for the guns” he said/ Into the valley of death/ Rode the six hundred.”LD.

TEAM: 1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 15.DENILSON, 2.DIABY (37.Eastmond `82), 4.FABREGAS©, 7.ROSICKY (14.Walcott `89), 23.ARSHAVIN, 9.EDUARDO (12.Vela `86). Unused: 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski, 30.Traore, 38.Emmanuel Thomas.