Having led the race for Champions League qualification until the home straight, Arsene Wenger’s thoroughbreds were suddenly feeling the hot breath of an unfancied Bolton Wanderers on their necks. They began to choke here, too, but finally cleared their throats and eased through the tape although a whiff of controversy accompanied their triumph.
Bolton departed North London with a cloud of rancorous frustration following them up the motorway. It is one thing to be beaten by Arsenal, whose sniffy attitude to Wanderers’ forceful approach has long been a bone of contention, but quite another to be cheated out of a point. And that, claimed Sam Allardyce, was most certainly the case on Saturday.
The Bolton manager’s consternation was sparked by the failure of referee Rob Styles to award his side a late penalty after Emmanuel Eboue appeared to handle in the area. His decision could have far-reaching implications.
A draw would have kept Wanderers in the hunt for a top-four finish: as it is, Arsenal are five points clear of their nearest rivals, and the gap could widen after the visit of Manchester
However, the ghost penalty was not the visitors’ only gripe during an eventful afternoon. Allardyce claimed, rather unconvincingly, that Ivan Campo did not deserve his late sending-off, believing his first yellow card for a crude hack at Alexander Hleb to be unjust. Then Kevin Nolan, his captain, accused Arsenal of gamesmanship.
“Arsene Wenger can say what he likes about teams time-wasting here, but they’ve done it themselves and I’ve seen them do it in Europe many times,” he said. “Wenger complains and we’re going to complain about him.”
Nolan’s ire had been stoked by Jens Lehmann, the goalkeeper, dawdling over a free-kick in the dying seconds, although it should be pointed out that Arsenal never stinted in pressing for a third goal and were worthy winners.
They did not have everything their own way, and Nicolas Anelka gave his old club a reminder of his predatory instincts by shooting Bolton into the lead after 10 minutes, but they responded impressively.
The catalyst for the recovery was Francesc Fabregas. The little Spaniard has fallen short of his own high standards in recent weeks and shown a petulant side to his character which is at odds with his mercurial talents. As Nolan put it, in typically brusque Scouse, “when he is getting beat he starts to lose his rag.”
It is no coincidence that Fabregas’ mini-slump has been a parallel of Arsenal’s, but on Saturday he was a delight, all pinpoint passes and lung-busting forward bursts. The 19-year-old played no part in Arsenal’s equaliser — bundled in from close range by Tomas Rosicky after Nicky Hunt had dithered over a clearance — but he scored the second with aplomb, collecting Gilberto’s through-ball, bamboozling Abdoulaye Faye and lifting a precise shot into the corner.
Opta Fact: Nicolas Anelka has scored six goals in eight Premiership games against former club Arsenal.
Opta Fact: Arsenal require a maximum of only eight points from their last five league games to finish fourth.