Stelios drops Arsenal into chasm

Bolton Wanderers 1 - Arsenal 0
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The Independent Online

Given that Arsenal lose so infrequently, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that any opponent could be called their bogey side, but Bolton now seem to fit that description. Arsène Wenger's team have dropped points against them on at least one occasion in each of the last four seasons and this season, perhaps critically, they have done so twice.

Given that Arsenal lose so infrequently, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that any opponent could be called their bogey side, but Bolton now seem to fit that description. Arsène Wenger's team have dropped points against them on at least one occasion in each of the last four seasons and this season, perhaps critically, they have done so twice.

Conceding a late equaliser to Henrik Pedersen at Highbury in September was a setback, but this was much worse. A goal by Stelios Giannakopoulos three minutes before half-time sealed their fate, the 30-year-old Greek international rising to head home a far-post cross from El-Hadji Diouf, delivering a blow from which Arsenal could not recover and leaving their hopes of a successful defence of their title looking increasingly forlorn.

Chelsea now lead the Premiership table by a yawning 10 points, a gap which must now look like a canyon to the pursuers of Jose Mourinho's team. It would be a daunting margin to contemplate clawing back for a side at the peak of their powers. But Arsenal were a long way from that in a disjointed, anxious performance and the presence of Manchester United on their shoulder, just a point behind, will do nothing for their peace of mind.

"We had chances but we were not clinical," Wenger complained afterwards. "We lacked determined effort in the final third." Bolton - busy, eager and believing in their ability to knock the champions out of their stride - gleefully took advantage and the three points that ease their worries at the other end of the table were emphatically well deserved.

Aware that both Chelsea and Manchester United had each collected three points earlier in the day, Arsenal's players were unavoidably under pressure to keep pace with their rivals and there was an uneasiness about them from the outset, contrasting with a confidence about Bolton that made little logical sense. This was a side, after all, who not so long ago lost six games in a row before scrambling a draw against West Bromwich Albion and whose win at Birmingham 12 days ago was their first in 11 matches.

But Bolton had got the message that Arsenal did not care for their style and were empowered by it, taking every opportunity to harry and harass their opponents, denying them time and space.

Arsenal made six changes from the side that had beaten Stoke in the FA Cup, most notably bringing back Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry. But Bolton, with Diouf returning but Kevin Davies and Radhi Jaidi missing through injury, were unimpressed. It was they who began strongly and went close to scoring when Gary Speed struck a rasping volley just over the bar.

The champions made some inroads, launching occasional bursts of precision passing. But too often they let themselves down, wasting good positions through a careless final touch. Henry and Robert Pires were guilty in turn in that respect.

Wenger's tensions rose more after Phil Brown, the Bolton assistant manager, had upbraided the fourth official over a series of questionable offside flags. At one point the Frenchman, sangfroid clearly misplaced, confronted Brown eyeball-to-eyeball. He had barely turned away when Brown was leaping in the air, celebrating what would be the decisive goal.

Diouf, who combined ingenuity with work-rate in a manner that singled him out as the man of the match, beat Campbell on the right and after his cross had soared and dipped, with Manuel Almunia flapping helplessly underneath it, there was Stelios at the far past to head home.

It was a splendid goal, rapturously received by a Bolton crowd that had not witnessed a home win since the end of October. It was conceded at just the wrong time for Arsenal, who pushed Bolton back in the second half - but aside from an early strike by Robin van Persie, from which Pires wastefully missed the follow-up, they seldom tested Jussi Jaaskelainen in the home goal.

Wenger is loath to concede the title to Chelsea yet but Allardyce's assessment will ring true with him none the less. "It is for Chelsea to throw away now," the Bolton manager said.

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