2006-02-12

Arsenal 1 Bolton 1

Arsenal squad is discovering and learning paying a high price. Brazilian Gilberto Silva’s late equaliser gave Arsenal some relief on an afternoon when, despite having the overwhelming bulk of possession, Arsène Wenger’s boys were out- bullied by Sam Allardyce’s men in a titanic thriller that also featured two horrific tackles.

“A great performance but the wrong result,” Allardyce noticed. His team are now six matches unbeaten and two points behind Arsenal with a game in hand.

“It’s sad we didn’t win as we deserved, but it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that we’ve drawn at Highbury and it feels like we lost.”

Infact, New personnel and the youngest back four in their league history notwithstanding, the previous week’s victory at Birmingham appeared to herald a return to traditional, steel-tinged Arsenal values. What's more, Wenger neglected to change his starting line-up, leaving Fredrik Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires on the bench.

It's obvious that Bolton were a proposition fraught with the gravest of danger, for their forthright approach has traditionally troubled even Wenger’s finest Arsenal teams, let alone his present ragbag of kids and stragglers. So it proved.

It's good to notice that Bolton scored as early as the 12th minute. The only surprise was that it took them so long, for they created two terrific chances in the first five minutes.

First, Matt Jansen crossed from the left to find Kevin Nolan, unaccountably unnoticed by the nervy Sebastian Larsson, sliding in at the far post. Jens Lehmann pawed the shot aside.

Arsenal struggled to clear the subsequent corner, Joey O’Brien chanced a lob back into the melee, only to watch Bruno N’Gotty’s beautifully judged header drift past Lehmann and on to the bar. The best Arsenal had to show for a wretched opening spell was Jose Antonio Reyes’s ludicrous dive in the penalty area.

Keep in mind that Nolan’s goal was sweetness itself. Ricardo Gardner side-footed the ball through to Hidetoshi Nakata, whose poke looked too hard for Jansen before the forward’s tenacity and Philippe Senderos’s sluggishness combined to ensure the ball spun towards Nolan, again unnoticed by the hapless Larsson. Nolan’s perfect flick sailed over Lehmann and into the top corner.

For the top of the day, worse came for Arsenal when Abdoulaye Faye’s two-footed challenge took the ball but also caught Reyes, who spun in agony and crashed to the turf. Faye was shown the yellow card while the Spaniard was eventually carried off with a suspected broken leg.

Actually Allardyce countered: “So Arsenal don’t run the clock down if they’re winning 1-0 away from home with 10 minutes to go? He should stop whingeing about us and concentrate on his own team.”

With desperation increasing, the last 10 minutes were a siege. Francesc Fabregas forced Jaaskelainen into a fine close-range block from Bergkamp’s corner, while Nicky Hunt and Ben Haim combined to foil Adebayor’s dance through the penalty area, but, in general, Arsenal rarely looked convinced that parity would be theirs.

Then, with the five minutes of added time almost up. Arsenal managed one last heave. Nakata blinked a second allowing Fabregas to chip towards the redcurrant hoards. Hitherto invisible, Gilberto stole in ahead of Ben Haim to turn a deft equaliser past Jaaskelainen.

In the end, Arsenal had something to show for an afternoon of strife.