Arsenal's chances of intervening in the title race may be no more than hypothetical but there can be no doubting the influence they will still bring to bear on the remainder of the Premiership season, if only through their unparalleled ability to add beauty to the spectacle. Yet one suspects there is much more to come from Arsène Wenger's young but demonstrably maturing team.
As was evidenced on an inhospitably rain-swept evening at Ewood Park, an Arsenal team so often suspected of having no stomach for hard, northern nights overcame more than the loss of Gilberto Silva to a 13th-minute red card. They went on to win in style, rounding off a victory that keeps them on the heels of third-placed Liverpool with a goal to add to Thierry Henry's catalogue of classics.
Gilberto's angry kick at Robbie Savage might have let his team-mates down - he will miss three matches, starting, critically, with next Sunday's visit of Manchester United - but they never really looked ill at ease. And Henry left no one in any doubt that his break from football has restored his appetite for moments of decisive brilliance, creating one goal for Kolo Touré before his own magnificent moment 19 minutes from time to kill off any hopes of a Blackburn recovery.
It was a demonstration of resilience and craft that prompted an assessment bordering on eulogy from a delighted Wenger. "It was a superb performance under difficult circumstances, one of quality, spirit and solidarity," he said. "To see commitment mixed with class and technique is fantastic. In the past I have felt we sometimes were not so committed as we should have been away from home but this is a measure of the progress we have made. For me the strength and solidarity is growing from game to game."
Given that he had witnessed, in the Carling Cup last Tuesday, a six-goal demolition of Liverpool in the Carling Cup fashioned by almost an entirely different team, Wenger's state of expectation over what may be possible with this group of players is entirely understandable; the chance to have some bearing on the title race (by defeating United) one for which he can hardly wait. He barely quarrelled even with the red card.
Savage's clattering tackle from behind on the Arsenal midfielder prompted the referee, Rob Styles, to reach for his yellow card yet before he had the chance to show it Gilberto had reacted with both a push and a kick and the punishment that followed was inevitable. "Savage went in aggressively and maybe you could argue that both players should have gone," Wenger said. "But Gilberto has admitted he over-reacted and he should not have."
Given the numerical advantage, Blackburn were disappointing. Humbled 6-2 at the Emirates in December, they had bounced back with three wins in the Premiership and a handsome FA Cup victory at Everton but could not impose themselves, although they had good chances, two of them missed by the 20-year-old Matt Derbyshire. Arsenal regrouped so effectively, however, that after 37 minutes they went in front. From a free-kick, Henry floated the ball into the penalty area, and Touré stole in to head home via Brad Friedel's right-hand post.
Wenger's side came under pressure, inevitably, in the second half and for a while they were seldom out of their own half, which must have encouraged Mark Hughes's men.
But players of Henry's quality need barely a sniff of an opportunity to leave the mark of their sublime talent on a game and when the Frenchman, with the aid of Cesc Fabregas, worked a route along Blackburn's left flank 19 minutes from the end, the conclusion was exquisite. A stroke of the master's right boot from the left half of the penalty area sent the ball curling beyond the reach of Friedel and put the match beyond Blackburn.Reuse content