In dreadful weather at their least favourite ground yesterday, the southern Fancy Dans of Arsenal showed some true grit to recover pride and points just in time for three successive matches against Liverpool, followed by a visit to Manchester United. Playing for the last hour of a thrillingly fluctuating game with 10 men after Abou Diaby was sent off, they fell two goals behind by half-time before drawing level after a double substitution and achieving the most dramatic of victories in the final minute. A stunned Bolton, for all their efforts, are now clear favourites for relegation following wins for Birmingham and Sunderland that leave them four points from safety.
It was in many ways a bewildering afternoon, not least because so many of the goals arrived after play had been flowing in the opposite direction. Arsenal dominated the first quarter of an hour, then went into arrears, but after 60 minutes were being outplayed and should have been 3-0 down. The home side then suffered their first defensive lapse of the afternoon, suddenly lost belief and were never in the game again. With four away games to come in their six remaining assignments, the final whistle yesterday must have sounded like a death knell.
The visiting fans chortled, "You'll never play us again," and should probably have added, "we hope". The Reebok has been a graveyard for their aspirations more than once in recent years, and after five League games without a win – one more would have been the worst run of Arsène Wenger's 12 years – this had the makings of a tricky task.
He was not helped, initially at least, by having to give Emmanuel Adebayor a rest ahead of this week's double with Liverpool, though the long fresh legs of the Togolese striker and the shorter ones of Theo Walcott would change the game later. Footballing considerations aside, Wenger was rightly proud of the mental strength that he has always insisted this young squad possesses. The manner of victory against their bogey team can only add to it. "It was a mental test because it looked as though everything was going against us," he said. "I can't remember a better comeback than that."
The driving Lancashire rain that greeted Arsenal's players when they stepped off the bus was even stronger by kick-off, which did not deter either Bolton's manager Gary Megson from standing in his technical area throughout nor Arsenal from playing their passing game on what looked a good pitch.
They dominated the opening 14 minutes, then conceded a goal in the home team's first attack of note. A long ball down the right for Kevin Davies earned a throw-in that Gretar Steinsson took, receiving the ball back from El Hadji Diouf inside the full-back and crossing perfectly for Matt Taylor to head in his first goal since being allowed to leave Portsmouth in January. Other than that, the visitors made all the chances, only to suffer two more blows before the interval.
On the half-hour, Diaby went in on Steinsson with his studs showing and caught the defender on the ankle. It was the sort of tackle rightly and belatedly being punished in the English game and Wenger did not dispute the decision. Mathieu Flamini was at fault for the second goal, losing possession as he was hounded by Gavin McCann, and Diouf squared for Taylor to score with the aid of a slight deflection.
Even then, Arsenal should have halved the deficit before half-time. Kolo Touré, playing at right-back, found Flamini, who shot far too high. Once the second half began amid the unrelenting rain, Bolton exerted all the pressure, without quite managing to score a third goal to kill the game. One of Taylor's great virtues is his ability from set-pieces swung in with the left foot and from one of a series of corners Gary Cahill's header was only kept out by the goalkeeper's leg.
Once more, however, a goal came against the flow of play, to be followed, astonishingly, by another. In their first attack of the half, after almost 20 minutes, Arsenal won a corner that Ivan Campo unwittingly nudged to the far post where William Gallas, totally unmarked, brought his team back into contention. Six minutes later they were level. Adebayor helped Flamini set up Alexander Hleb, who was tripped by Cahill. Robin van Persie, slowly growing sharper again, tucked away the penalty.
The Dutchman should have won the game 10 minutes from the end after a fine run by Walcott, but with 10 seconds of normal time remaining, Cesc Fabregas completed the job as the luckless Jlloyd Samuel deflected in his scuffed shot.Reuse content