Bolton Wanderers 3 Arsenal 1: Allardyce power game pulls plug on Arsenal's aim

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The Independent Football

Somewhere along the long and whining road from Arsenal to Bolton, Nicolas Anelka acquired the nickname of the "Incredible Sulk". His first, long-overdue Premiership goal was little short of incredible. His second left Arsène Wenger in something of a sulk.

As Anelka's catharsis wrested a compelling contest from Arsenal's control, propelling Bolton into the Champions' League places, Wenger frequently spun away as if unable to watch. This was a triumph of aggression and experience over artistry and youth, not for the first time in this fixture, and frustration was etched into his features.

You looked, one scribe ventured to Wenger, like the unhappiest man in football. "Don't worry, there's a few unhappier than me," came the reply. "I'm just sad that the players are not rewarded for what they produce. If you look at the number of games we play, and the energy we put into them, you want that reward. You can see the quality and potential. The quicker we learn, the sooner we'll get satisfaction."

Must Arsenal now write off the title? "It is very pretentious to say we'll be champions," admitted their manager. "Our target is just to keep going, get the best out of our potential and see where we finish." Barely two years after Manchester United fractured their aura of invincibility, this was a telling adjustment in ambition.

The word "potential" peppered Wenger's responses, underlining the impression of Arsenal as a team in transition. If this match left question marks of varying sizes over Gaël Clichy, Emmanuel Eboué, Emmanuel Adebayor, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini, they also confirmed the awesome range of Cesc Fabregas' distribution and the thrilling touch and pace of Theo Walcott.

For Arsenal to be at their most formidable, however, such precocity must be balanced by strength and know-how of the kind that Thierry Henry and William Gallas would have brought to the table. In their absence, not to mention that of Lauren, Tomas Rosicky and Robin van Persie, they could not suppress the in-your-faces football which the lung-bursting endeavour of El Hadji Diouf exemplified for Bolton.

Sam Allardyce revels in defeating Arsenal almost as much as Sir Alex Ferguson and was true to his promise that Bolton would "get in amongst them". What should concern Wenger was the way his team were again psyched out at the Reebok. The senior pros, Freddie Ljungberg and Jens Lehmann, were too quick to betray their unease. The German's dissent contributed to the four bookings which, with Bolton accruing three, ensured Arsenal could not claim even a moral victory.

Setting out his blueprint for beating Arsenal, Allardyce said: "They always get irate when you upset them. That's why other teams have copied what we do. You know they'll lose their cool and composure. When they do that, you've got a chance."

There is more to Bolton, of course, than a Wimbledon-like ability to unsettle. Allardyce is fond of reciting figures to disprove their ruggedly one-dimensional image. Ultimately, though, the only statistic that mattered was that Anelka broke his Premiership duck at the 11th attempt.

And how. Wenger complained that Arsenal controlled the game "except when they put long balls into our box". Perhaps he meant the long ball Anelka dispatched into their net, a swerving, dipping drive that doubled the lead provided by Abdoulaye Faye's free header from an early corner-kick.

Gilberto Silva immediately emulated Faye, yet Anelka was not sated. With Arsenal pressing relentlessly - they hit the woodwork three times - the £8.5m misfit from Fenerbahce ran on to Ivan Campo's measured through ball before angling his shot, Henry-style, beyond Lehmann.

Allardyce confessed that Anelka's form was becoming a problem. "Nicolas has been really frustrated. So have we. Hopefully this will relieve that and allow him to settle. He has definitely been fed up and asking what we can do to get him better service. We told him if he starts making runs into certain areas, he'll get the service.

"Because he's a quiet lad, I have to make the conversation. I can't wait for it to come from him. You have to build a relationship with players, and because some of them don't say much, it doesn't mean they're OK."

Wenger had "no regrets" about the player he bought for £500,000 and sold for 40 times as much. "Why should I? He's the one that wanted to go." Nor did he wish, on days like this, that Anelka was still an Arsenal player. "I focus on the players I have, not those in the other squad. I believe we had enough quality to win this game."

Goals: Faye (9) 1-0; Anelka (45) 2-0; Gilberto (45) 2-1; Anelka (76) 3-1.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Hunt (Stelios, h-t), Ben Haim, Meite, Fortune (Campo, 43); Faye; Diouf (Vaz Te, 83), Nolan, Speed, Davies; Anelka. Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Tal.

Arsenal (4-5-1): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Senderos, Clichy; Walcott, Fabregas, Gilberto, Flamini (Baptista, 59), Ljungberg (Hleb, 73); Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Djourou, Hoyte.

Referee: M Dean (Wirral).

Booked: Bolton Davies, Fortune, Campo; Arsenal Ljungberg, Lehmann, Senderos, Touré.

Man of the match: Diouf.

Attendance: 24,409.