Gunners show Dunkirk spirit to match the dogged Digard

Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 1
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The Independent Football

Where better for Arsenal to prove their stomach for a Premier League fight than in a town twinned with Dunkirk.

It was never a backs-to-the-wall job for Arsène Wenger's men by the banks of the Tees yesterday. They had to dig deep at times to match the fighting sprit of a Middlesbrough team personified by the dogged French midfielder, Didier Digard. They also had to survive a strong penalty claim against them that might have prompted their sixth defeat of the Premier League season.

At other times, particularly after Emanuel Adebayor had headed them into a 17th-minute lead, the Gunners threatened to tie up the game with the needlepoint precision of their patchwork passing moves. They failedto do so after being unpicked at the back when Jérémie Aliadière – a graduate of the Arsenal academy – plundered the equaliser with a brilliant diving header.

Ultimately, though, it was a point well won by the Gunners – one more than they took from the Riverside last season.

"Nobody believes in us, but champions are teams that keep going," Wenger said afterwards. "Of course the League is still wide open. In the next game we have the potential to cut the difference between ourselves and Liverpool."

Wenger's side are at home to Liverpool a week today, which issurely a must-win affair if they are to claw their way into serious contention for the title.

On opposition soil yesterday, the Gunners took a little while to fire on all cylinders. It was evident that Middlesbrough's purposeful high-tempo start had them unsettled when Adebayor came perilously close to opening the scoring for the home side. The Togolese striker gave a wistful smile as his wayward header flew over his own crossbar after Digard swung a left-wing corner into the Arsenal goalmouth.

Still, there was a warning sign for Middlesbrough when Robin van Persie flashed a low drive a foot wide. Then, in the 17th minute, CescFabregas took a corner on the left and this time Adebayor was on target, directing a header down and past the diving Ross Turnbull having been generously granted the freedom of the six-yard line.

For the next 10 minutes or soArsenal threatened to sweep Middlesbrough aside. But then, with 29minutes on the clock, Gareth Southgate's men struck back.

They did so in style, the right-back Tony McMahon charging down an attempted clearance by Gaël Clichy before Tuncay Sanli whipped the ball in from the left for Aliadière to convert for Middlesbrough's firstheaded goal of the season.

The game might have swung either way before the interval. Arsenal survived a strong penalty call when Clichy got away with a borderline challenge on Adam Johnson and Middlesbrough were let off the hook when Van Persie made a hash of attempting a first-time back-heeled finish at the same end of the ground where Nwankwo Kanu achieved the trick during their 6-1 masterclass 10 seasons ago.

There was to be no slaughter yesterday. Indeed, Arsenal had to dig in to match Middlesbrough's clout after the interval. They also had Manuel Almunia to thank for keeping out a Stewart Downing shot on the hour. Arsenal had their chances too, though, Van Persie dragging a shot across goal.

By the end, Middlesbrough were hanging on for their point. Nicklas Bendtner only took the field in the 82nd minute, but the Dane had two chances to win the game for Arsenal – having an angled shot beaten out by Turnbull and sending a header flashing over the bar. Ultimately, it was a fair result, and a fair game too.

Attendance: 27,320

Referee: Peter Walton

Man of the match: Digard

Match rating: 7/10