Boy wonder Robin flies to the champions' rescue

Arsenal 2 - Southampton 2
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The Independent Football

The scars of Arsenal's roughhouse defeat to Manchester United were mental as well as physical. It appeared serendipitous that the fixture computer had gifted Southampton as their next League opponents but the champions struggled badly. In the end they scraped - not a verb usually applied to Highbury events - a draw through a brilliant injury-time goal from the effervescent substitute Robin van Persie. It was his second inside a week.

"To lose today would have put us in a confidence crisis," claimed Arsène Wenger afterwards although that was probably an overstatement. However the Arsenal manager revealed that he had been concerned that the Old Trafford "hangover" was affecting his players. "It was a shock for us to lose," he said. And he saw that shock in the faces of his charges in the dressing room beforehand. Van Persie's goal was therefore "a big relief". It meant, Wenger hoped, that last Sunday's game was out of the system.

That may well be so. For as badly as Arsenal played, by their own peerless standards, they did indeed show the "mental resolve" not to lose even if the goals they conceded exposed a fragility at the heart of their defending. To allow one unchallenged header from a set-piece was bad enough. To permit two, and to the same player, Rory Delap, and within five minutes, was, as Wenger put it, "really surprising". Set-pieces are a problem.

It was against Southampton 18 months ago that Arsenal embarked on their 49-match unbeaten run and there was an air of foreboding at kick-off for the visitors who were stripped of their strikers and had not scored in the Premiership, never mind won, for weeks. But there was never any chance of a repeat of that 6-1 scoreline from last year even if they are now nine League games without victory. Head coach Steve Wigley, to his credit, has re-grouped and installed some defensive rigour. "I thought we limited their opportunities on goal," Wigley said. "We came here and matched them. We were very organised and frustrated them." It was an unexpected point - meetings next month with three fellow relegation candidates mean more - but it could have been three.

Indeed Southampton had their own evidence to stake a claim that they should have won, and not least because of the lead they held. Thierry Henry missed a first-half penalty, his shot striking the post, after Dennis Bergkamp was foolishly brought down by Darren Kenton, and both Fredrik Ljungberg and substitute Robert Pires should have scored with close-range shots. But for Southampton Mikael Nilsson's volley from a cross by Danny Higginbotham thumped back off the far post and Kenton almost had a late redemption when he tumbled under Pascal Cygan's challenge. But no penalty was given.

The game had started at a curiously sedate pace. Henry set the tone when he lazily headed wide from Bergkamp's cross while, twice, the Dutchman squandered opportunities of his own. First, from Henry, he shot weakly and then his first touch was too heavy - a rare statement to make about Bergkamp - when clear and the ball ran through to Antti Niemi. "Our passing was laboured," Wenger admitted. "No fluency. No vision. I knew before the game that it could happen." However, on half-time, Niemi had to saved brilliantly from Henry, tipping his curled shot away.

Wenger shuffled his pack. He lost the lively Jose Antonio Reyes with a damaged hand, although he will be available for Tuesday's Champions' League match, and introduced Pires and Cesc Fabregas. With just 22 minutes to go they manufactured the breakthrough as Bergkamp lofted a pass through to Henry. Clear on goal he routinely slipped the ball beyond Niemi for a starkly simple goal. The Southampton protests were furious. Claus Lundekvam struck the ball towards the assistant referee whose flag had stayed down. The official was correct. It was Higginbotham who had dallied and played Henry on-side.

It momentarily changed the dynamics and it appeared Arsenal's fluency would return. Henry burst down the left with a rugby-style chip and chase to provide for Ljungberg. His miss was costly. A corner from the substitute Neil McCann found four Southampton players queueing up. Delap was first to accept the invitation and thumped a header past goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. That he did so again, and again from McCann's delivery, this time from a free-kick, provoked joyous celebrations from the visitors. It also came directly after Pires's miss.

Arsenal were still not fluent but they did become frantic. They stormed forward and, somehow, from Fabregas's incisive pass, Van Persie, the third substitute, fashioned the space to curl left-footed into the top corner. It was a sublime, restorative finish. "That is the reason why they are the best team in the land," Wigley said. "Teams who win championships score late on." Arsenal do not usually have to wait that long.

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