Arsenal 2 Wigan Athletic 0: Gallas to the rescue again as Arsenal leave it late

Captain and Rosicky help Gunners break Wigan to go clear at the top
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The Independent Football

In a period of introspection for English football as it contemplates its absence from international competition next summer, what better than to genuflect at the altar of the beautiful game? Well, not exactly. By their own aesthetic standards this victory, which propelled them to a three-point lead over Manchester United, was the reward for Arsenal's persistence rather than their poetry in motion. Two late goals were the product of simplicity rather than sophistication, and Arsène Wenger's 250th Premier League victory of his Arsenal career required the opportunism, once again, of captain William Gallas, who, three weeks ago equalised in added time here against Manchester United. This time, the Frenchman, sporting a Mohican haircut, brought the stadium to life just a little earlier with an 83rd minute goal. Tomas Rosicky confirmed the victory shortly afterwards. Arsenal have garnered no fewer than 13 points from goals scored in the last 10 minutes this season.

Wigan had been afforded a scintilla of hope, with two key components of Arsenal's undefeated run in all competitions absent, Cesc Fabregas being suspended and Alexander Hleb injured. The Gunners manifestly missed the presence of both, though Wenger insisted that any absence of fluency in midfield "was not down to a lack of quality in midfield. They [Wigan] defended very well. They didn't give us an inch. I was amazed how long they lasted."

Incoming Wigan manager Steve Bruce watched from the directors' box after his appointment was delayed by a farcical wrangle over his image rights at Birmingham. The man who hired him, chairman Dave Whelan, missed this game, preferring to be in Switzerland for the birth of a grandchild, having commended Chris Hutchings' successor as "a top, top man". We will see. Yesterday, Bruce was probably relieved to be looking on, rather than taking immediate responsibility. Caretaker Frank Barlow had that thankless task. Since being promoted to the elite in 2005, Wigan have now lost 20 games against the so-called Big Four. This was their eighth consecutive defeat this season.

In his programme notes, Wenger had declared himself "sad and choked" by Wednesday's events at Wembley, as England lost against Croatia, ensuring they would not be at Euro 2008. Cynics would contend that saddened though he may be, it is unlikely to encourage him to nurture English talent.

Afterwards the Frenchman reinforced his argument that a quota system of foreign players in the Premier League would not be desirable. "It would protect mediocrity," he declared disdainfully, before adding: "Between 1966 and 1996, England did not win a big tournament – and that was when you had all English players [in the top division]." Well, not quite all. But we get his point.

A consequence of Arsenal's absentees was that Theo Walcott was rewarded with a start yesterday. Deployed through the middle, he offered an exhilarating glimpse of what he can contribute to club and country, particularly in the first half. He was carried off in the second half after a heavy challenge by Wigan substitute Emile Heskey, who returned after two months out to aid his team's survival quest. You could detect that Heskey had some catching-up to do. He was cautioned, along with Gallas, the worst offenders of a 13-man confrontation provoked by Marcus Bent's ugly tackle on the Brazilian midfielder Denilson.

Walcott, still only 18, displayed a degree of poise and technical prowess too often absent on Wednesday night. He combined with Emmanuel Adebayor but the latter's effort was saved splendidly by goalkeeper Mike Pollitt. Wenger admitted that he was "a little surprised, considering the dearth of England strikers" that his player had not been involved on Wednesday.

Wigan's resistance finally fractured, with Gallas heading home Bacary Sagna's cross. Two minutes later, substitute Nicklas Bendtner played Rosicky through yet it was Gallas who affected the vital breakthrough. Late perhaps, but surely not the last from the Mohican?

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