If there was an almost audible groan from the Arsenal dressing-room just before half past two yesterday, when Joe Cole's goal carried Chelsea eight points clear at the top of the Premiership, the noises by tea-time were altogether more satisfied. The champions may not be able to do anything about their west London rivals until the sides meet again on a Wednesday night in April, but they remain defiant in their response to every Chelsea triumph. Here, without touching the heights of many 2004 performances, they recorded a fourth successive victory since drawing with the leaders at Highbury last month.
It was comfortable enough in the end, after a difficult first half, in which Fredrik Ljungberg put them ahead before a fearsomely struck equaliser by Talal El Karkouri. The key moment, and most controversial one, occurred three minutes after the interval when Robin van Persie came back from an offside position to set up Ljungberg's second goal. Charlton's manager Alan Curbishley, normally capable of treating the twin imposters just the same, was in unusually aggressive mood after the game, claiming: "I feel mugged. I'm fed up with this offside rule, 'active' and 'passive'. Van Persie was clearly offside, then came back and put Ljungberg through. I think we've got to get together and get rid of this bloody rule, because it's causing mayhem."
Arsène Wenger called it "a typical Arsenal goal", in the sense of a smooth build-up of first-time passing, rather than any gamesmanship. He had good reason to be satisfied with another away win to follow those at Portsmouth and Newcastle in this bloated holiday programme: "We needed some great performances, because Charlton are a good side." Patrick Vieira, leading from the centre as it were, and Van Persie, deputising for the injured Dennis Bergkamp, were among those who obliged. The only negative was a further injury, Sol Campbell limping off and almost certainly missing the match at home to Manchester City on Tuesday.
Charlton, the last London side to beat Arsenal in the Premiership, had taken 13 points from their five previous games, but the fact that El Karkouri, a centre-half, is their leading goalscorer says much about their main weakness. Heavily beaten at Highbury in October, their grounds for a sliver of optimism this time hinged on that recent run and the injuries the champions have suffered, especially in midfield. The right-back Lauren was another absentee yesterday, but Jerome Thomas, signed from Arsenal last January, saw too little of the ball to take advantage of his former reserve-team colleague Justin Hoyte.
Thomas managed one promising cross in the opening stages. Dennis Rommedahl drove it at goal and the centre-half Jonathan Fortune would have scored had he made any sort of contact. As the home side continued a lively spell, Shaun Bartlett shot too high from 25 yards and Manuel Almunia, still favoured ahead of Jens Lehmann, caused a flutter among the visiting supporters behind him by dropping Radostin Kishishev's cross.
Arsenal had troubled Dean Kiely only once, with a mis-hit volley by Thierry Henry, before they took the lead 10 minutes from half-time. Vieira was allowed too much space as he broke on the left of the penalty area before setting up Ljungberg to swivel and score. That was hard on Charlton, who deserved their spectacular retaliation soon afterwards. Mark Halsey awarded a free-kick almost 35 yards out for a foul on Danny Murphy and after it was touched square by Matt Holland, El Karkouri sent a bullet flying past Almunia.
If that cemented the popularity of the versatile Moroccan, whom Curbishley watched play in a variety of positions for Paris St-Germain before signing him last summer, there was little time for him to bask in it. Three minutes into the second half neither he nor his fellow defenders could prevent Ljungberg completing a well constructed move to restore Arsenal's lead. It began down the right, with Van Persie playing his controversial part, and continued with a subtle back-heel by Cesc Fabregas into Ljungberg's path.
Henry, who had been comparatively quiet for once, was denied a goal just after the hour when his curled free-kick was headed off the line by Bartlett. The visitors soon had their third, however, Van Persie profiting with a smart left-footed finish from Fortune's wayward header back towards his own goal.
Although Charlton made a double substitution, replacing Kishishev and the under-employed Thomas with Jason Euell and Paul Konchesky, they surprisingly declined to push Euell further forward, even when Bartlett hobbled off, and did not threaten Arsenal again.
"At the moment we try not to look at other results," Wenger insisted. He will not be able to ignore Chelsea's much longer.
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