Pires' sharpness edges Arsenal closer

Middlesbrough 0 - Arsenal 1
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The Independent Football

Arsenal grew a little larger in Chelsea's rear-view mirror yesterday but this was not a victory that suggested the champions can overtake them. They stuttered as injury-stricken Middlesbrough, gallant as a Grand National outsider, attempted to overcome the odds only to fall at the final hurdle to an ugly goal.

The statistics were against Middlesbrough, even before their goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, was hurt warming up and Brad Jones stripped off for his first game of the season. Arsenal had won the last seven League meetings between them, putting 13 past Boro in the last three alone. Even the home bookmakers made the five favourite first scorers all Arsenal players.

In the end, with only 15 minutes remaining, it was the joint 11th favourite, Robert Pires, who settled the game. Franck Queudrue tried to clear a cross but the ball bounced off Doriva for the unmarked Frenchman to roll into the net.

"It was a question of patience and not becoming too frustrated because we didn't create many chances," said Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger. "They defended well and maybe we lacked a little imagination in our build up. At the end of the day it was a hard fought three points and it looks like we are now finding a balance defensively and we scored our 100th goal of the season. We are slowly coming back in the championship but it will all end too soon for us."

Even the treatment table was weighted against the home side. They lost Mark Viduka and Boudewijn Zenden from last weekend, whereas Arsenal welcomed back Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Philippe Senderos and so could leave Sol Campbell on the bench with a view to next weekend's FA Cup semi-final. Vieira overwhelmed the midfield with his turns and tackles while Thierry Henry haughtily found space, terrorising the home fans without even touching the ball. Yet it wasn't until the 15th minute that Jones was called into action, happily taking a routine catch.

Middlesbrough knew their breakouts would be precious. For Stewart Downing, their left-wing protégé, this was pressure too much and he initially misplaced his passes. But when, in the 20th minute, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink rolled the ball back to Doriva, the Brazilian curled the ball away from Jens Lehmann on to the top of the bar.

Frustration replaced fluidity in Arsenal's game. Henry, with nine goals in his last six games, grew exasperated, and Middlesbrough found their feet. Lehmann tipped a Downing cross into the air, but Hasselbaink couldn't capitalise, and the half drew to a close with the Arsenal goalkeeper characteristically unable to hold a corner. On the whistle, Queudrue clattered Jose Antonio Reyes, for which he was booked, and Bergkamp replaced the Spaniard for the second period.

Gareth Southgate and Chris Riggott were digging in manfully and Borough's trio of midfield bruisers - Doriva, George Boateng and Ray Parlour - seized the centre of the pitch. Indeed, Doriva out-Vieira'd Vieira with a series of muscular muggings, and when Downing scorched away from the half-way line in Henryesque fashion, leaving a trail of defenders in his wake, it was possible to wonder if the sides had swapped shirts at half-time.

Then, in a very un-Arsenal style, the natural order was restored in the 73rd minute when Cesc Fabregas's cross from the right pinballed its way through for the opportunistic Pires to score his 11th goal of the campaign. "But for the ricochet, they never looked like scoring," said Middlesbrough's manager Steve McClaren. "They never broke us down and never created a clear-cut [chance]. That's as close as we've come to Arsenal and all round I'm very, very proud of the players."

Immediately after the goal, Middlesbrough had a chance. Szilard Nemeth seized on Senderos's dawdle in the centre circle and setHasselbaink away, but he chipped into Lehmann's hands. And so the moment was gone and, for Middlesbrough, so was the game, leaving the statistics to show that this was Arsenal's fourth consecutive Premiership victory and their fourth successive visit to Teesside without conceding a goal.