Arsenal's title hopes fading after home fire goes out
Arsenal 0 Blackburn Rovers 0
Arsenal were hoping for an upturn in their fortunes in April after a nightmare March in which they went out of two competitions and failed to win a League game, but instead the new month will seem depressingly similar for Arsène Wenger and his team to the one that has just ended.
They are, to all intents and purposes, out of all competitions. Wenger will not concede the Premier League title to Manchester United, but he might as well. United's win at West Ham earlier in the day had left Arsenal eight points adrift in second place, but their response was feeble, their football lacking its usual pace and creativity, and devoid of cutting edge.
Their point leaves Arsenal seven behind United, and although they have a game in hand on the leaders, who visit here on 1 May, they no longer control their own destiny. "Before we speak about the title, we have to come back to a good level of performance," Wenger said. "It was a flat performance – lack of energy level, lack of sharpness. It's difficult to identify one special thing. We started well, but very few players had the resources to raise the level of their game."
Blackburn should have been the perfect antidote to Arsenal's ills, having lost the seven previous meetings between the teams in north London. But they battled for their point, and survived the dismissal of Steven Nzonzi for a two-footed tackle on Laurent Koscielny with 13 minutes to go. Although Christopher Samba and Ryan Nelsen excelled in central defence, it was an indictment of Arsenal that they have probably had tougher matches. "We tried to put pressure on their midfield three and the lads showed a fantastic appetite," Steve Kean, the Blackburn manager, said. "In slow motion, [Nzonzi] gets a bit of the ball. Sometimes they're red, sometimes they're yellow."
Blackburn still seem likely to be heavily involved in the relegation battle, but will take heart from ending their poor run at the Emirates. Even though they have failed to win any of their past seven matches, and are only two points above the bottom three, they showed enough quality in this match to believe that they can pull clear.
Arsenal were at their best in the early stages. Phil Jones got in the way of a shot by Alex Song, Nelsen did well to avoid turning Theo Walcott's cross into his own net, and Paul Robinson kept out the winger's shot fromtwo yards.
Nasri, despite a bandaged head following contact with Nelsen's, set up the best chance of the first half with a low cross from the right after 30 minutes, only for Jack Wilshere to put his shot tamely wide from eight yards. But at least it was a shot. Although Arsenal regularly weaved their way into the Blackburn penalty area, their attempts to pick out a clever pass increasingly found only a defender anticipating well, and their attempts at trickery became almost predictable.
So far, so much par for the Arsenal course – as were two moments of goalkeeping uncertainty before the interval. Manuel Almunia let a long shot by Martin Olsson slip under his gloves, watching in relief as it rolled wide of goal, then failed to reach a dropping ball with an attempted punch, allowing Nzonzi an unchallenged header which went wide.
Predictably, there were calls for Wenger to replace him with the recently re-signed Jens Lehmann, who sat impassively among the substitutes. Instead, Wenger threw on Cesc Fabregas – who had not felt confident in his ability to play a full 90 minutes after recovering from a hamstring problem – Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner.
The changes might have worked, especially once Nzonzi had departed, but Blackburn deserved to hold out as Arsenal mounted a late siege of their goal. Olsson threw himself in front of Chamakh's shot after Wilshere's clever run, and Michel Salgado chested Bendtner's late header off the line – no doubt to applause from any watching Manchester United players. After yesterday's results, they must believe that the title is on its way back to Old Trafford.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Samba
Match rating: 5/10
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