Back trouble hurts Arsenal title challenge

West Bromwich Albion 2 Arsenal 2: Gunners salvage point after giving away two soft goals but fall further behind the leaders
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The Independent Football

There was applause at the final whistle from those supporters of both sides not drained by the events of an afternoon made all the more dramatic by the goings-on elsewhere. When pulses stopped racing and points had been calculated, the conclusion was that it was a better day for West Bromwich Albion, tangled up in the chaos at the bottom of the Premier League, than Arsenal, who had lost ground at the top.

It could have been worse still for Arsène Wenger's side, who were2-0 down with an hour played, having conceded a laughable second goal to follow a bad first one. Throwing forwards on to the pitch, they eventually drew level and finished in the ascendant, only to discover that Manchester United's 10 men had scored an even later goal to move five points above them, having played one game more.

For the home side, who would doubtless have taken a point before the start, emotions were equally mixed, as was illustrated by their fans exhibiting dismay when four minutes of added time were indicated. They survived a frantic last couple of Arsenal attacks and trooped off to learn that neighbours Birmingham were alone among the bottom seven teams in having lost.

"It would be wrong to be upset at not hanging on," said their manager, Roy Hodgson. "It was a sterling effortagainst a good team. I don't think I can fault the players. Everyone worked their socks off."

Wenger refused as usual to criticise individuals, though he couldnot deny how poor the two goals conceded were. "We were far too nervous and tentative in the first half," he admitted. "You could see that recent games had an impact." That run of games has brought defeat in the Carling Cup, the Champions' League and the FA Cup, all in the space of two weeks. Defeat here, in conjunction with United's psychologically important late victory, and it would have been tempting to add the Premier League to that list. As it is, the manager was able to claim: "I'm proud of the spirit we've shown. The pitch was difficult so it was down to character and resilience." Asked about the possibility of winning the game in hand and the home match with United he even claimed: "We will!"

Arsenal's – and Arsène's – mood was a world away from such buoyancya quarter of an hour after the interval. They had conceded in only the third minute of the game, no defender offering any sort of challenge as Steven Reid, hardly the tallest player on the pitch, rose to head in Chris Brunt's corner. Aaron Ramsey, starting for the first time since breaking a leg last February, looked suspiciously like the closest opponent to him, but he was nothing like close enough.

Albion lost momentum when James Morrison was forced off for almost 10 minutes to have his head stitched and bandaged, but Arsenal failed to make the most of either their domination or the best opportunity during that period. Robin van Persie, as isolated as Reid had been, rose equallywell to meet Gaël Clichy's cross with a looping header that came back off the crossbar to Ramsey, who could not defeat Scott Carson's brave block.

Each manager made a change at half-time and within a few minutes Albion's substitute, Marek Cech, almost set up a goal from the best move of the match. Peter Odemwingie sent him down the left for a low cross that Brunt could only slide past the post. It hardly seemed to matter when Odemwingie chased a long punt in hope rather than ambition. Sébastien Squillaci failed to deal with the bouncing ball and to his horror found Manuel Almunia racing outside the penalty area as the forward was presented with an empty net. A pfennig for the thoughts of Jens Lehmann, the 41 year-old who had left Arsenal after falling out with Almunia but has now been brought back as his deputy.

Arsenal had brought on both Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh alongside Van Persie and despite looking unbalanced in consequence they spent most of the final half-hour on the offensive. With 25 minutes to play Andrey Arshavin took a return pass from Chamakh and thrashed a left-footed shot across and past Carson.

New belief gushed through the team and the visiting fans behind the goal, who soon had an equaliser to celebrate and a spectacular win to dream of. Arshavin's deflected cross fell for Bendtner to return from beyond the far post, Van Persie squeezing the ball in as Abdoulaye Méïté delayed his clearance.

Attendance: 25,729

Referee: Stuart Attwell

Man of the match: Arshavin

Match rating: 8/10

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