Arsenal 1 Middlesbrough 1: Last-gasp Toure saves Arsenal blushes

Ten-man Middlesbrough hold on for point as Wenger's men fall behind United in title race
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The Independent Football

During Jérémie Aliadière's seven years at Arsenal, supporters despaired at his scoring record, which amounted to a single League goal, before a £2 million transfer to Middlesbrough last summer. Last night his smartly taken half-volley was threatening the greater despair of a first home defeat this season until Kolo Touré's late headed equaliser.

A fourth successive draw by Arsenal, who are apparently saving their best performances for the Champions' League, allowed Manchester United to hit the top of the table, and football's Denman and Kauto Star are suddenly aware of the presence of a third contender in the Premier League race, from the Abramovich stable. Indeed, Chelsea could draw level with Arsenal in midweek, ahead of the meeting between the two at Stamford Bridge next Sunday.

United should be striding clear, Denman-style, by then. Their expected, if laboured, victory at Derby earlier yesterday had cranked up the pressure on Arsène Wenger's side, whose response was not sharp enough early enough. "A draw when you chase the championship is not enough," the manager admitted.

Wenger was able to strengthenevery area of the team by bringing back Kolo Touré in defence, Emmanuel Eboué on the right of midfield and Robin van Persie in attack for his first start since October. But the Dutchman was clearly not match-fit, and only after he was withdrawn for the last half-hour did anything like the necessary penetration materialise. Even then, Robert Huth and David Wheater provided a formidable barrier in the centre of Boro's defence, and Mark Schwarzer was his usual defiant self behind them.

After their lamentable FA Cup performance against Cardiff, the visitors had much to prove and did so, even if the goal was their only shot on target. "It was crucial to restore pride in our town, because last Sunday we were a laughing stock," their manager, Gareth Southgate, said.

Aliadière was back after his four-match suspension, and became the central figure in one of the two refereeing controversies which meant that it was the visitors who went in with an interval lead. When Schwarzer took a long free-kick – in itself a debatable decision for Emmanuel Adebayor's shoulder- charge – Aliadière was clearly offside down the middle. The ball, however, drifted to the left, allowing Tuncay Sanli to take possession and cross for his striking partner to score on the half-volley. As it was the sort of move from which Thierry Henry often used to benefit, you might say the biters had been bit.

To add to their sense of injustice, however, Arsenal felt they had been hard done by after only four minutes' play. Although Adebayor was even more clearlyoffside than Aliadière before putting the ball into the net, it had been played to him by Middlesbrough's George Boateng in challenging Cesc Fabregas. The referee, Mark Halsey, could hardly be accused of favouring one of the bigger teams, as the home crowd reminded him. When Eboué, regularly thrusting down the right, went down in the penalty area under challenge from Emanuel Pogatetz, Halsey looked across to his assistant, who indicated only a goal-kick.

Schwarzer was relieved both to see Eboué's cross-shot bounce off the bar and then to beat away his low drive. Arsenal also failed to capitalise on untypical long balls. Van Persie missed his kick completely with a wild swing at Touré's punt, and when Ade-bayor stretched out a long leg to reach Manuel Almunia's clearance, there was insufficient power to defeat the goalkeeper.

Middlesbrough, the only team to beat Arsenal in the League this season, replaced the ineffective Egypt midfielder Mohamed Shawky at half-time with Lee Cattermole, one of their numerous young Englishmen. Arsenal kept theirs, Theo Walcott, in the dug-out for another quarter of an hour, when he replaced Bacary Sagna, Eboué dropping to full-back. Nicklas Bendtner's arrival offered a second aerial threat to Adebayor's, with Walcott quicklymaking tracks down the flank to supply the crosses, and the number of chances increased.

Fabregas, pushing forward, was unable to convert two of them. First he ran on to Alexander Hleb's clever pass but hit Schwarzer on the knee with his shot, and then headed against the post from a cross by Touré. But, with three minutes remaining, Touré headed in Fabregas's corner, while in added time Wheater and Huth were both forced into heroic blocks on Bendtner and Walcott. There was also time for Mido, a late substitute, to be dismissed for having his foot so high that it cut Gaël Clichy's head.

"It's a very good opportunity to make the final stages of the Premier League season very exciting and interesting," Wenger had written in the programme. By half-past seven last night the race had become more interesting than he would have wanted.

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