Arsène Wenger was tieless on the touchline and his team have rarely been so casual. Two-nil up and strolling with only 15 minutes to play, they proceeded to toss away victory and possibly the championship as well. After Youri Djorkaeff cleverly deceived David Seaman, the header that Martin Keown unwittingly nudged past his own goalkeeper has tipped the balance towards Manchester United, who now take a two-point lead at the top into their game at Tottenham this afternoon. But a thrilling race still seems certain to go the final furlong, United having a harder last day, at Everton, than Arsenal at Sunderland.
Both contenders knew well enough that there would be no easy pickings for them at the Reebok Stadium. Six weeks ago Sir Alex Ferguson's side did not equalise there until stoppage-time; yesterday Bolton, engaged in a battle of their own at the bottom, matched the champions and more, despite finishing with 10 men, when Florent Laville was sent off, to the fury of his manager, Sam Allardyce.
Despite their improved form of late – only two defeats in 11 games – the home side had to regard anything they took from the game as a bonus; thanks to victory over West Ham a week earlier, they remain firm favourites to finish ahead of what we must briefly call Trevor Brooking's team, who will still be two points behind even if they were to win away to Manchester City today.
For Arsenal, the pain of points conceded was equalled by the loss of personnel. Sol Campbell was in his last club match of the season because of suspension and Patrick Vieira is probably out until the final game; during the second half, Pascal Cygan, Freddie Ljungberg and Lauren all limped off and only then, significantly, as minds turned towards the remaining few matches and self-preservation, did Bolton's goals go in.
But the recovery was fully deserved, all the more so for being so unlikely with a quarter of an hour to play. If Allardyce's policy of hiring foreign mercenaries on loans and short-term contracts is hardly the way to build a club – not a single Briton was in the Wanderers side yesterday – there is something attractive about the earthy spirit inspired by their very English manager, which in turn has helped make unlikely Lancastrian heroes of players like Jay-Jay Okocha and Djorkaeff.
Both were impressive, in front of the solid central midfield shield provided by Ivan Campo and Per Frandsen, as Bolton went about their task with the defiance that almost defeated United. In the first half they were the livelier side and made the two best opportunities, shots driven a fraction wide by Henrik Pedersen and Okocha. Arsenal did not test Jussi Jaaskelainen until shortly before the interval, so it was something of a surprise that they scored twice so soon after the break.
Thierry Henry made both, first of all exchanging passes with Robert Pires in his favourite position on the left flank and slipping inside to feed Sylvain Wiltord for a tap-in. Nine minutes more – during which Seaman saved well in the top corner from Frandsen's header – and Henry, on the left again, fed Pires, who passed the ball precisely inside the far post.
That looked like that and against most teams it would have been. But in the 75th minute, Oleg Luzhny, one of Arsenal's replacements, unnecessarily conceded a corner that the revamped defence failed to clear. Frandsen drove it back against a post and as half a dozen white-shirted players raced for the rebound, Djorkaeff, onside, beat Seaman with the deftest of little chips.
Frandsen, excellent as ever, soon forced the goalkeeper to block in front of the same post and Pedersen would have been the hero had Ashley Cole not frustrated him two yards out. The Reebok was soon rocking anyway, as Henry was penalised out on the left, Djorkaeff curled over a tempting free-kick and Keown, another of the substitutes, was harassed by Gudni Bergsson into heading the ball into his own net.
There was still time for a dollop or two more of drama. Seaman had to hold Salva Ballesta's header and then Laville, harshly booked in the first half for a foul on Henry, received his second yellow card for a much worse one on Cole. The combination of that decision and the allocation of six minutes' added time brought about a fine old rant from Allardyce. Already nursing a grievance from the 2-1 defeat at Highbury about smaller clubs not getting the rub of the referee's green shirts, he had pleaded before the game for a fair deal and did not feel it materialised.
"Andy D'Urso has done us yet again," he said. "For Laville to concede two free-kicks all game and get two yellow cards is absolutely disgraceful. I feel like the referee's tried to take it away from us and it's left a bitter taste. And this is the only place in the country you'd get six minutes added on."
Wenger, just as characteristically, was more restrained, though clearly upset about the rash challenges that put Ljungberg and Lauren out of the game: "They were eliminated by bad tackles. It's a big blow, but we'll regroup. Things change quickly in football and what looks dull and dark now might look bright tomorrow." But only if Tottenham can do their neighbours a favour – however reluctantly – against United today.
Over to you, Sir Alex – with or without Becks.
Bolton Wanderers 2 Arsenal 2
Djorkaeff 74, Keown og 84; Wiltord 47, Pires 56
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 27,253