Football: Champions close in on summit

Sutton sent off as Blackburn's Premiership struggles continue while referee shows 13 cards at Elland Road; Blackburn Rovers 1 Arsenal 2

IT WAS scarcely the awesome destruction of last season, but it sufficed in the circumstances for Arsenal, hoisting them back to third place and within sight of the Premiership summit again.

They were content to return south with maximum points from a match they seemingly had sewn up by half-time yesterday with an arrogance and economy of effort that will have reverberated to Old Trafford and Villa Park.

After the break, however, Blackburn summoned an unlikely recovery, only to run out of patience and self-control. Chris Sutton perpetrated one assault too many on Patrick Vieira and was rightly shown the red card. Tim Sherwood, his captain, was fortunate not to have gone the same way.

Blackburn's manager, Roy Hodgson, claimed mitigating circumstances on Sutton's behalf, revealing his centre-forward had suffered a broken nose shortly before his rash challenge on Vieira. It is understood the earlier incident also involved the Frenchman.

Hodgson had gambled by recalling Sutton ahead of schedule yet apparently did not have the total courage of his convictions and played no one alongside the striker in that fateful first half.

He summoned Kevin Davies from the bench for the second period, Blackburn pulled back a goal and Arsenal , in time-honoured fashion, battened down the hatches and satisfied themselves with the counter-attack. Nicolas Anelka, having scored the first goal with a majestic strike, ought to have spared his colleagues anxious closing minutes before they were assured their first away win of the season.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said: "Maybe our performance of last year helped us win today because Blackburn were cautious in the first half. We had two chances and scored. The second half was different. They went for longer balls and we felt the pressure, wanting an away win.

"Vieira has some scars and I thought it was an unfair tackle from Sherwood, even more than the one from Sutton. You could say people are trying to bully him and goad him, and it's not the first time."

A repeat of last spring's 4-1 win, which effectively gave Arsenal control of that championship, became a realistic prospect again, almost by default in a surreal first half. Blackburn were encouraged by their initial progress, Sherwood, in particular, instantly dialling into his game and testing Arsenal's fabled resistance, firstly with a dangerous cross, then an athletic overhead kick.

Arsenal, with Steve Bould taking over as centre-half and captain from Tony Adams, repelled both threats and were relieved Sutton could not direct a header on target.

Those early irritations out of the way, Arsenal waited for the moment like birds of prey and it came their way after 25 minutes. Billy McKinlay allowed Vieira to hustle him, the ball broke to Anelka and the striker carried it forward before beating Tim Flowers with a fierce low shot, which smacked the inside of a post on its way in.

Five minutes before half-time Stephane Henchoz, perhaps a might unfortunately, was penalised just outside the area and four Arsenal players stood over the free-kick before the ball was laid to Emmanuel Petit, whose shot took a deflection off the crumbling wall on its way past Flowers.

Hodgson withdrew Jason Wilcox in favour of Davies and an orthodox 4-4- 2 formation for the second half and Blackburn upped the tempo. David Seaman saved splendidly from Sutton's deflected shot but was beaten after 64 minutes. Blackburn's persistence and Arsenal's laissez faire attitude turned the match into a contest, Damien Duff crossing from the left and Petit unwittingly hooking his attempted clearance straight to Damien Johnson who headed into the corner.

Blackburn, confidence restored, pressed forward in search of an equaliser, only to be caught three times on the break. To Anelka's dismay, and his team-mates exasperation, he failed to punish Blackburn.

Goals: Anelka (25) 0-1; Petit (40) 0-2; Johnson (64) 1-2.

Blackburn Rovers (4-5-1): Flowers; Kenna, Henchoz, Peacock, Davidson; Johnson, McKinlay, Sherwood, Wilcox (Davies, h-t), Duff; Sutton. Substitutes not used: Croft, Dailly, Dunn, Fettis (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Winterburn; Ljungberg, Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Anelka, Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Vivas, Hughes, Grimandi, Garde, Manninger (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Bookings: Blackburn: Sutton, Sherwood. Arsenal: Ljungberg, Vieira. Sending- off: Blackburn: Sutton.

Man of the match: Petit.

Attendance: 27,012.

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