Without a win at the Reebok Stadium since 2002, Arsenal cannot rid themselves of their Bolton hoodoo. Yet last night it was technical quality rather than intimidation that was their undoing, and from a familiar source as Nicolas Anelka ended the wait for his first Premiership goals for Sam Allardyce's team by scoring twice against his former club.
The Frenchman was a classic Arsène Wenger discovery when he arrived at Highbury as an 18-year-old in 1997 and scored 28 goals in his two seasons with Arsenal, but a suspect temperament and inconsistent form have accompanied him since then and his failure to score in his first 10 Premiership matches for Bolton had raised fears that Allardyce might have made an expensive error when he paid £8 million to bring him back to England from Fenerbahce in August.
Last night, however, despite the elevation of Theo Walcott to starting duty in the absence of an injured Thierry Henry, Anelka made himself the unrivalled centre of attention, delivering two pieces of reassurance to his new manager as another sorry excursion to Bolton prompted Wenger to concede that his team's chance of winning the title may have gone.
Acknowledging the gap of 12 points Arsenal must make up on Manchester United, Wenger said: "We are too far behind. There is a lot of quality in the team but we do not seem able to turn it into points and what kind of impact we can make now, I don't know." Bolton now have an opportunity to have a greater say.
Chelsea are due at the Reebok on Wednesday and Allardyce will be looking for more of the same from Anelka, hoping last night's performance will have repaired any damage to his confidence created by his barren streak. "I was concerned about him because he was getting into good positions and starting to look to pass," Allardyce said. "But perhaps facing his old club brought about a little extra incentive to show how good he is and I think this can be a turning point for him."
Arsenal hit the woodwork three times in the second half but their defending was below the necessary standard, exposed first in the ninth minute when Abdoulaye Faye was allowed to head home El Hadji Diouf's corner unchallenged, Faye's second goal for Bolton coming against the side he had punished with his first, in last season's 2-0 Bolton win here.
It was a goal that had less to do with Bolton's physical strength than slack marking yet it did not take long for hackles to be raised in the Arsenal technical area and on the field, and with some justification. Kevin Davies was fortunate to receive only a yellow card after angrily pushing Emmanuel Eboué to the ground and Quinton Fortune was rightly booked for a lunge that sent Walcott skidding off the pitch. It would be the former Manchester United defender's last noteworthy contribution, injury forcing his withdrawal after 43 minutes. Bolton also lost Nicky Hunt, their other full-back, soon afterwards.
Then came Anelka's golden moment, swiftly followed by a goal for Arsenal. Anelka's was a wonderful strike, the Frenchman turning with the ball on the left, striding past two defenders and unleashing a rising shot on a 30-yard diagonal that Lehmann was never going to keep out.
Yet Allardyce's joy at seeing Anelka's face break into a broad smile was tempered within seconds as Cesc Fabregas delivered a cross from the right to set up an unmarked Gilberto Silva to head home from eight yards.
It was a tough fixture for Walcott to be given only his second start and his first away from home but he had impressed Wenger after coming off the bench to turn the game against Hamburg in midweek. Unfazed, he was the key figure in Arsenal's strong start to the second half, supplying the cross from which Freddie Ljungberg hit a post with a header and going close himself with a shot deflected over by Tal Ben Haim.
Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor also hit the post and bar in the final stages but Anelka was destined to have the decisive say. Moments after watching Lehmann pull off a fine save to deny him what had looked a certain second goal, he came up with the finish of a striker at his confident best, timing his run on to Ivan Campo's defence-breaching pass before drilling the ball out of Lehmann's reach.Reuse content