Diouf finds Gunners' range to deal heavy blow

Bolton Wanderers 1 - Arsenal 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sam Allardyce, the Bolton Wanderers manager, spoke at length and legitimately about both the tactics that brought down Arsenal and the man who most undermined the dwindling champions - his latest human reclamation operation, El Hadji Diouf.

Sam Allardyce, the Bolton Wanderers manager, spoke at length and legitimately about both the tactics that brought down Arsenal and the man who most undermined the dwindling champions - his latest human reclamation operation, El Hadji Diouf.

Really, they were the same thing. "Big Sam", who broke another Arsenal title challenge at the Reebok Stadium two years ago, had reckoned that trying to get behind Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré from central positions was a mug's game. Better, he said, to send Diouf wide. He had enough pace and skill - and desire to remake his career after becoming English football's public enemy No 1 - to lead the turning of the Arsenal full-backs Ashley Cole and Justin Hoyte on a swiftly revolving spit.

It worked as beautifully as a properly spiced Lancashire hotpot and as the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires paddled and then drowned in their own egos, Diouf was man of the match by the width of the moors. However, Allardyce's dream was Arsène Wenger's nightmare. The Arsenal manager was candid enough about some of his team's shortcomings. Young Hoyte and even the precocious Cesc Fabregas showed their inexperience at times and yes, Wenger, admitted, he was disappointed by Arsenal's level of determination in the last third of the field.

You couldn't expect Wenger to say much more than that. Certainly, it would have been poor psychology - and that might just still matter if Chelsea happen to stumble despite their 10-point Premiership lead - for him to have said that Arsenal were a pale, sad parody of the team which went unbeaten last season. But it would have been right.

Bolton won because they were splendidly attuned to what they had to do. Diouf ran with guile and good humour, and his hero's role was confirmed when he left Campbell for dead out on the Bolton right and crossed beautifully beyond the fingertips of the careworn Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia for Stelios Giannakopoulos to head home in the 41st minute.

Stelios, to use the name he now prefers, knows all about bringing down the big guns after his European Championship glory with Greece, but the sad truth was that, as trophy scalps go, this one was more than a little threadbare. Indeed, not the least astonishing aspect of the night was that Bolton had beaten a team largely composed of players who not much less than a year ago were being quite freely described as possibly the greatest club side in the history of English football.

The folly of such overreaction was relentlessly exposed by Allardyce's ferocious band of footballers of fortune. Jay-Jay Okocha was withdrawn after 79 minutes for fear that his extravagant nature might produce a fatal mistake in a dangerous area of the pitch, but by then Arsenal's frantic energy looked doomed to a critical failure.

The truth which wore down Wenger no doubt quite as much as the latest broadside from Sir Alex Ferguson was that his team had failed at every level, technically, psychologically, and in that crucial old area of the heart. Some apologists suggested that victories by Manchester United and Chelsea earlier in the day had come to weigh too heavily upon Arsenal by the 5.15pm kick-off time at the Reebok Stadium.

It was a feeble argument and the more you thought about it the more pathetic it became. Great teams are supposed to breathe in such pressure and exhale it as fire. As it happened, Arsenal were scarcely recognisable as the team who provoked such eulogies last season.

Henry was particularly disappointing. Two years previously, he had made critical mistakes as Bolton fought back to earn the 2-2 draw which did so much damage to Arsenal's failing effort to hold off Manchester United in the last strides of the title race. Here, surely, was an invitation to step on to redemption road. Instead, he fiddled and posed. There were flashes of brilliance - a heart-stopping change of pace, a beautiful example of first-touch control - but none of it amounted to a great player producing the best of himself when it mattered most.

Vieira, who used to take hold of vital matches so unshakably he was seen as the new Roy Keane, was not much better. Maybe the stories about Real Madrid turning his head, and his heart, were true. Certainly, when his club, the one which has nurtured him for so long, needed him at his most authoritative, he tended to disappear from view.

Wenger, naturally, was in no mood for any profound inquest. "Early in the game," he said, "with the chances we had we looked as if we could finish them off easily. We gave absolutely everything in the end but it took us time to get completely into the game." Absolutely everything? That, surely, was a confession.

Goal: Stelios (41) 1-0.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-2-3): Jaaskelainen; Hunt, Ben Haim, N'Gotty, Gardner; Campo; Okocha (Pedersen, 79), Speed; Nolan (Hierro, 87), Diouf, Stelios. Substitutes

not used: Poole (gk), Vaz Te, Fadiga.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Hoyte, Touré, Campbell, Cole; Ljungberg, Fabregas (Reyes, 66), Vieira, Pires; Van Persie (Bergkamp, 66), Henry. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Clichy, Senderos.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Durham).

Booked: Bolton Nolan, Stelios; Arsenal Van Persie.

Man of the match: Diouf.

Attendance: 27,514.

Lauren interview, page 42

Bolton Wanderers 1 Arsenal 0

Comments