Arshavin's strike sends pragmatic Gunners top

Arsenal 4 Bolton Wanderers 2
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The Independent Football

They have swept to the top of the Premier League in one of the most astonishing title race comebacks in recent memory but William Gallas proved last night that for all Arsenal's beautiful football, they are not above the game's dirty pragmatism when it suits them.

It was Gallas who committed a terrible foul on Bolton's Mark Davies in the build-up to Arsenal's 53rd-minute equaliser, a studs-up lunge that turned out to be the game's turning point. With Davies stricken and Bolton complaining of an injustice, Arsenal swept up the pitch and made the game 2-2: they never looked back.

Top of the table this morning, Arsenal's march back into a title race that they were so far out of less than two months ago has been the season's great story. On 29 November, Arsenal were pulverised 3-0 by Chelsea at the Emirates, yet since then they have made up 11 points on their old rivals and find themselves top this morning on goals scored.

But amid all the glory, it was hard not to think that Owen Coyle's team, two goals up after half an hour, had been undone by Gallas's cynical tackle on Mark Davies. The 21-year-old former Wolves trainee was carried off the pitch and left the stadium on crutches; his manager called the challenge "akin to assault and it changed the game".

The Emirates crowd, never the noisiest at the best of times, let themselves down by jeering Davies when he was carried off. They like to think of themselves as the football purists at this club, and there was still some wonderful football played last night, but here was the proof that even Arsenal have their blemishes.

To his credit, Wenger headed off a major row by just about admitting that Gallas had overstepped the mark. The Arsenal manager could not bring himself to admit that he had seen the foul – with referee Alan Wiley he must have been one of only two in the stadium who did not – but he did, after a fashion, acknowledge its severity. "I'm sorry if the tackle was not good," Wenger said.

What Wenger could not accept was that his players should have stopped the game as Davies lay on the turf and Arsenal swept upfield to score the goal that brought the game level again. That is a grey area but, after Gallas, the responsibility for this miscarriage of justice must be laid at the feet of Wiley who missed a blatant foul and then allowed play to continue.

Would Arsenal have won the game regardless? The margin of their victory would suggest that was the case but you can be sure that if the roles had been reversed, Wenger would have been enraged. The Arsenal manager has a litany of injustices that he feels have been dealt his club and he will not lose too much sleep over this one.

For now Arsenal's place at the top of the table feels symbolic more than anything. But if they come out of their next run of league games against Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool still in the same position then they will know that they have the mettle to win the title.

There are more immediate problems as well with Abou Diaby limping out the game in the second half with a calf problem that add another to the list of Wenger's injured and unavailable midfielders.

Wenger's team were two goals down before the half-hour mark, once again displaying all the usual frailties with a shaky Gaël Clichy making his first start since October. On six minutes his bad clearance put Arsenal under pressure and Mark Davies won an important header that set up Gary Cahill to score.

On Sunday, Owen Coyle played a four-man midfield against Arsenal in his first game in charge of Bolton. By last night he had learned his lesson, switching to a five-man midfield and giving Arsenal academy graduate Fabrice Muamba a man-marking job on Fabregas.

On 26 minutes, Denilson made a ludicrously clumsy tackle on Lee Chung-yong in the area and Bolton were presented with a rare chance from the penalty spot. Matt Taylor had had an earlier free-kick saved by Almunia but he did not miss from 12 yards.

Arsenal poured forward. Kevin Davies struck his own bar with a header from Fabregas' free-kick before Rosicky made the breakthrough. It was Fabregas who made it, playing the ball out left to Rosicky. Zat Knight stood off him and he struck his shot inside Jussi Jaaskelainen's left post.

The controversial equaliser arrived as Arsenal came back at Bolton after the break. Gallas gave the ball away with a misplaced pass straight to Mark Davies which he followed up with a crude foul on the Bolton man.

The passage of play should have ended there, with a booking for Gallas but with Mark Davies flat out in agony, the Frenchman played the ball out to Bacary Sagna. From there it went to Andrei Arshavin who briefly lost out to Taylor who in turn had the ball taken off him by Fabregas. He took the ball into the area and scored.

Vermaelen volleyed in when the ball dropped loose at a corner and Arshavin stole through for a fourth goal. A great comeback but still not Arsenal's finest hour.

Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Fabregas, Denilson, Diaby (Eastmond 76); Rosicky (Vela, 87), Eduardo (Walcott, 90), Arshavin. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Silvestre, Traoré, Emmanuel-Thomas.

Bolton Wanderers (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Robinson (Ricketts, 90); Lee (Klasnic, 80), Muamba, Cohen, M Davies (McCann, 56), Taylor; K Davies. Substitutes not used: Al-Habsi (gk), Samuel, Elmander, O'Brien.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Arsenal Clichy Bolton Muamba, McCann.

Man of the match: Fabregas.

Attendance: 59,084.