Arsenal come off the ropes to keep run alive

Arsenal 5 - Middlesbrough 3
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The Independent Football

Brian Clough's home town did him proud but Arsenal, showing the class and grit of champions, ultimately overcame Middlesbrough's startling resistance at Highbury yesterday to match the unbeaten record set by "Old Big 'Ead's" Nottingham Forest 26 years ago.

Brian Clough's home town did him proud but Arsenal, showing the class and grit of champions, ultimately overcame Middlesbrough's startling resistance at Highbury yesterday to match the unbeaten record set by "Old Big 'Ead's" Nottingham Forest 26 years ago.

Boro, having barely strung a trio of passes together in the opening 40 minutes, scored three goals between the 43rd and 53rd to transform a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead. Arsenal, undefeated in the League since May 2003, were stunned. "We didn't know what to think," said Thierry Henry. "We were on the ropes. I thought it was slipping away," added Arsène Wenger.

Arsenal's response was magnificent. Within 12 minutes, goals from Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and José Antonio Reyes had restored the lead. In injury-time Henry, who had opened the scoring after 25 minutes, added the fifth.

"It became a mental test," said Wenger. "We were on the verge of losing by more than three but this team always finds the resources to bounce back. It is our individual quality, our togetherness and our mental resources."

The Arsenal manager, perhaps forgetting Ruud van Nistelrooy's missed last-minute penalty at Old Trafford last season, said he felt this was the closest Arsenal had come to losing their record. "We are not invincible," he added. "Going 1-3 down shows we can lose.

It will take a good team to beat them. Forest's run was only ended when they took a depleted side to Liverpool, then the finest team in the country. Without Martin O'Neill, Tony Woodcock and Kenny Burns, they lost to two Terry McDermott goals.

Where Liverpool had Phil Thompson and Alan Hansen in central defence, Middlesbrough had their reserve pairing of Chris Riggott and 37-year-old Colin Cooper facing Henry and Bergkamp. It looked an unequal contest and it was.

Arsenal were themselves without Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell and they were to show vulnerability in central defence and in goal. Against moderate opposition, however, their attacking potency enabled them to overcome this.

This is supposed to be the season Boro make the breakthrough. For most of the first-half they struggled to break out of their half and it was a near-miracle they were not behind in the eighth minute, Mark Schwarzer in goal twice denying Bergkamp before Reyes then hit the post.

That seemed to set the pattern of the afternoon as Arsenal took control. Reyes hit the side-netting, then brought a fine save from Schwarzer, before, from deep left-midfield, lofting a superb 60-yard ball to Henry. The Frenchman missed his first touch, but deftly chipped Schwarzer with his second.

With Henry striking the bar with a 30-yard free-kick after 42 minutes, a second Arsenal goal seemed a matter of time. Instead Boro levelled. Franck Queudrue, advancing from left-back, weaved past three tackles, played a one-two with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink then slipped in Joseph-Desiré Job who beat Jens Lehmann at the near post.

Eight minutes into the second period the German goalkeeper was looking a liability as Hasselbaink, taking advantage of a Pascal Cygan error, then Queudrue from 30 yards, beat him at the near post.

Highbury watched in disbelief, especially the small corner of Boro fans. All knew Arsenal needed a goal quickly. Bergkamp delivered. Drifting into that difficult area to mark, between the centre-halves and midfield, he picked up the ball, moved forward and drilled in from 20 yards.

Next Reyes rode three tackles and fed Henry on the left. His shot was going wide when Pires, who had only been on the pitch three minutes, tapped in at the far post. Inside a minute Arsenal were ahead. Boro lost possession from the kick-off, Bergkamp fed Reyes who scored.

Arsenal were not yet secure. Hasselbaink and Michael Reiziger had chances to level but it was Arsenal who completed the scoring. Stuart Parnaby failed to control a defensive hoof from Cygan, Bergkamp stole the ball and released Pires. Henry tapped in the cross.

"To go 42 games unbeaten in this league is a magnificent achievement," concluded Steve McClaren, the Boro manager. "In this form they have to be favourites to win the League again. They have so many attacking options."

"I have never met Brian Clough but Martin O'Neill has told me all about him and his team," said Wenger. "I understand he was quite a character.

"The record is a bonus," he added. "It is a big problem when you have to win and are scared to lose. Having the record means you can focus just on the football."

Goals: Henry (25) 1-0; Job (43) 1-1; Hasselbaink (50) 1-2; Queudrue (53) 1-3; Bergkamp (54) 2-3; Pires (65) 3-3; Reyes (65) 4-3; Henry (90) 5-3.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg (Pires, 61), Gilberto, Fabregas, Reyes (Flamini, 77); Bergkamp, Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Van Persie, Hoyte.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Reiziger (Parnaby, 74), Riggott, Cooper, Queudrue; Mendieta, Parlour, Boateng, Zenden (Nemeth, 77); Hasselbaink, Job. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Maccarone, Doriva.

Referee: S Dunn (Gloucestershire).

Booked: Arsenal: Bergkamp. Middlesbrough: Zenden.

Man of the Match: Reyes.

Attendance: 37,415.