Arsenal ride their luck to keep title hopes alive
Blackpool 1 Arsenal 3
Blackpool was the last resort for Arsenal and though it seemed briefly that they might be another coachload of daytrippers leaving the place with very red faces last night, their faint title aspirations are intact.
It was beach football for 45 minutes, Arsenal shimmering in the sunshine and rediscovering their touch against the Premier League's weakest defence in a way which might provide some much-needed deliverance for a side Arsène Wenger declared before the game had lost their goalscoring spontaneity because they have been "in grief".
But it might just have been another story; the same old story of defensive fumblings which provided us with one of the season's most extraordinary matches in their 4-4 draw at St James' Park two months ago, when they gave up a 4-0 lead.
The appearance of Jens Lehmann in an Arsenal team for the first time since a 1-0 over Everton on 4 May 2008 had seemed portentous from the minute Manuel Almunia injured his knee in the warm-up. But Arsenal's title pretensions flashed before their eyes in the moment that Lehmann pulled DJ Campbell to ground in the early stages of the second half. Had the ball not fallen loose for Gary Taylor-Fletcher to slot in, Lehmann might well have been dismissed, rather than sauntering from the field, bathing in the chants of his name 40 minutes later.
Even Wenger admitted that he had winced when his goalkeeper waded into Campbell. "Yes, that was an important split second of the game," he said, conceding an infringement. Wenger's claim that the goalkeeper would only have been cautioned for the offence if play had not gone on did not stack up. Lehmann was the last man between Campbell and goal.
It was not the only turning point. Arsenal's second flirtation with disaster came within two minutes of the first when Laurent Koscielny's hack at Taylor-Fletcher should have earned Blackpool a penalty to level the match. Ian Holloway's sense of desolation last night was understandable – he looked distressed when he emerged from referee Lee Mason's dressing room, a full hour after the game had finished.
Though Theo Walcott's arrival to set-up the decisive third goal confirmed the visiting side's undisputable superiority, this does not look like a commanding Arsenal side, now ready to reel in United. They were the Invincibles when Lehmann – who, at 41, is a week off overtaking Jock Rutherford as Arsenal's oldest player – was in his north London pomp, playing all 38 games of the legendary 2003-4 season. But the immediate fixture list – Liverpool at home next Sunday, followed by Tottenham, Bolton and then Manchester United on 1 May – will surely settle matters beyond all doubt.
How Wenger's players managed to cause their manager all this anxiety only they will know. Blackpool briefly threatened them, Ian Evatt heading over Charlie Adam's corner in the opening minutes, but then they were engulfed; incapable of coping with the succession of crisp, high balls from midfield from the boot of Cesc Fabregas – the jewel of the afternoon.
The Spaniard was the inevitable source of Arsenal's first, Van Persie taking the through-ball on his chest and squaring for Abou Diaby to sweep home. Five minutes later, a masterful return pass by Jack Wilshere cut a swathe through the right side of the Blackpool defence for Emmanuel Eboué to lash home the second before Craig Cathcart could get a challenge in.
Arsenal could have racked up the six goals they scored in August's Emirates meeting between the sides in the opening period alone. Van Persie's heavy first touch twice let him down at critical moments and Diaby couldn't find the target after Richard Kingson had over-committed himself. Nasri beat the offside trap to meet another Fabregas chip but saw the ball come back off the post. The memory of St James' kept Wenger up and down from the bench, flapping his hands and ruing all the profligacy.
Blackpool's chances to turn things round were not limited to the contentious moments. Campbell's failure to connect to a second-half cross, and Lehmann's calmness to stand tall when Diaby had gifted possession to the same striker, also threatened the course of the afternoon. Then Arsenal scored a counter-attacking third and the tension eased. Holloway's anger extended to referee Mason's decision to allow the goal to count when Van Persie, waiting in the area to convert substitute Theo Walcott's cross, began his run from an offside position. It was a far more marginal call.
Holloway said last night that he feels like a "gladiator going into an arena with a toothpick" and he has plenty to fear, having lost 11 out of 15 league games since the turn of the year. He believes that he might have confused his players by returning from a fact-finding trip to Spain two weeks ago, full of the joys of the short passing game which they tried to fairly disastrous effect in last weekend's defeat at Fulham.
"I confused them. I take the rap," he declared in an absorbing diary of his week in The Independent on Sunday. They simply cannot defend: that much was evident in the way that Arsenal cut them apart and Holloway's key admission last night was buried under the grievances. "We forgot about everything we spoke about and practised, to stop them getting through," he said.
Blackpool's three successive home games are crucial. Arsenal can hope against hope that they will also still be fretting when May dawns.
Subs: Blackpool Reid 4 (Varney, 60), Phillips (Southern, 83), Kornilenko (Puncheon, 87) Un-used Rachubka (gk), Eardley, Ormerod, Beattie.
Arsenal Walcott 6 (Arshavin, 61), Gibbs (Nasri, 86), Ramsey (Fabregas, 89). Unused Almunia (gk), Rosicky, Chamakh, Bendtner.
Booked: Blackpool Crainey, Southern. Arsenal Diaby, Wilshere.
Man of the match Fabregas Match rating 8/10.
Possession Blackpool 42% Arsenal 58%.
Attempts on target Blackpool 6 Arsenal 8.
Referee L Mason (Lancashire) Att 16,030.
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