The outstanding Dennis Bergkamp scored the goal that brought victory over struggling Blackburn and left the champions only one point behind Alex Ferguson's team, albeit having played one game more. Bergkamp then had a late penalty kick saved, following an incident in which Keith Gillespie was sent off.
Blackburn now have a long weekend without a game (they were due to be United's opponents in the league) in which to contemplate their predicament. Ahead of Everton only on goal-difference and Southampton, their next opponents, by a single point, they will be in the relegation places by Sunday night if Everton earn so much as a draw at home to Coventry.
Wenger, for once, backed the referee's decision to send off Keown, who had earlier been booked for an off-the-ball incident with Ashley Ward. As the England defender was apparently on edge after learning shortly before the kick-off that his young son requires a serious operation, it might have been more sensible to have left him out. He was guilty of another piece of indiscipline in the 70th minute, swinging an arm at Chris Sutton, despite having had a free-kick awarded to him.
Things would have been worse if Graham Poll had taken an equally harsh view of Bergkamp's waving an arm in frustration at Marlon Broomes.
What last night's game demonstrated, again, was that Arsenal cannot afford to have either of their Dutchmen absent, for whatever reason. Both returned after missing the goalless draw at Southampton, Bergkamp having recovered from his stomach virus and Marc Overmars from the park footballer's ailment of blisters. With Sunday in mind, Wenger kept Nicolas Anelka on the substitutes' bench throughout and restricted Nwankwo Kanu to half-an-hour's run-out.
Blackburn had their hands full coping with Bergkamp and his compatriot, who between them were involved in the two best moves of the first half and then the goal after 42 minutes.
Twice the reigning footballer of the year played delicious passes inside a defender for Overmars to hit square into the danger area; first, Darren Peacock scraped the ball away from the onrushing Kaba Diawara and, the second time, Diawara shot straight at John Filan. Three minutes before the interval, however, Billy McKinlay was penalised for handling 20 yards from goal. Bergkamp hit the free-kick against Blackburn's defensive wall with his right foot, then smacked the rebound with his left into the bottom corner of the net.
Blackburn, when they did get forward, seemed tempted to test Keown and Tony Adams by hitting long and high balls. Only one threatening moment materialised all night, however, Ward catching Keown off- balance and setting up Sutton, who shot wide.
Bringing on Damien Johnson for McKinlay had no discernible effect and they were pushed back again from the start of the second half. Filan made excellent saves from Ray Parlour's shot and Patrick Vieira's header.
Keown's sending off might have offered Blackburn hope, but their numerical advantage lasted only 13 minutes. Gillespie was given one yellow card for tripping Bergkamp in the penalty area, then another for abusing him as he lay on the floor, taking his team to 10 dismissals for the season.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Vivas, Overmars (Bould, 73); Bergkamp, Diawara (Kanu, 62). Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Grimandi, Anelka.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Filan; McAteer, Henchoz, Peacock, Davidson; Gillespie, McKinlay (Johnson, h-t), Carsley (Broomes, 68), Wilcox; Ward, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Flowers (gk), Davies, Marcolin.
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
Photograph, Fowler fined, results and tables, page 23
P W D L F A Pts
Man Utd 31 18 10 3 69 32 64
Arsenal 32 17 12 3 43 13 63
Chelsea 30 16 11 3 45 23 59Reuse content