TourÃ© takes leaders to new heights
Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 Arsenal 3
Sunday 08 February 2004
Where Manchester United had fallen to earth three weeks ago, allowing Arsenal to replace them at the top of the Premiership, the London side suffered nothing worse than a brief spell of turbulence as Wolverhampton Wanderers bravely blew up a storm. Viorel Ganea equalised Dennis Bergkamp's equally well-taken effort, but two goals early in the second half settled the leaders down and victory was comfortable in the end.
It enabled them to set a club record of 24 unbeaten League matches to start the season, beating the run by George Graham's team 13 years ago, which was finally halted by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That turned out to be their only defeat in winning the title with plenty to spare. For the current side, remarkably, the hardest part is still to come.
For Wolves, suffering a first home defeat in the Premiership since 20 September, the only consolation was the crop of defeats suffered by their rivals. Successfully hustling and harrying as they had done in the extraordinary win over United, they found class telling after half-time in a manner it had noton that occasion. Tuesday's visit to Leeds now takes on a critical dimension. Arsenal, meanwhile, have a home game against Southampton to extend their lead.
"The fact that after 24 unbeaten games it's so tight makes the players realise every point is vital," said Arsène Wenger. "We're proud of the record because it's a sign of consistency and mental strength." He rightly identified the key factor yesterday as his team's belated willingness to meet fire with fire. Patrick Vieira and Edu had not relished the buffeting they received in midfield from Alex Rae and Colin Cameron and the half-time message in the dressing-room may well have been to stand up for themselves a little more vigorously. The Arsenal captain was notably more physical as he drove his side forward early in the second half to telling effect. "In the first half we lost too many challenges, but second half we won most of them," Wenger added.
After losing 5-1 and 3-0 at Highbury this season, his opposite number, Dave Jones, demanded extra snap and crackle in the tackle this time. He had reason to be pleased with his side's response, claiming: "We gave our all and played some good football at times. We played one of the best teams in Europe today and gave them a game."
The visitors knew they had to start more brightly than United last month, who had been casual early on. Arsenal supporters would certainly have expected an easier ride once Bergkamp scored in the ninth minute. Some loose passing before that was forgotten as a wonderful move flowed from Edu to Ashley Cole on the overlap and then Bergkamp, the Dutchman bending the shot away from Paul Jones with the outside of his right foot.
With the raucous home crowd behind them, however, Wolves kept their nerve and gave the locals something to shout about. In the 20th minute, Denis Irwin curled a free-kick wide after Lauren had fouled the troublesome Ganea. Six minutes later there was a goal to celebrate, Jody Craddock sending Mark Kennedy's left-wing corner back across the area with a header that the Romanian met with a sweet half-volley just inside a post. Ganea greeted his first Premiership goal so enthusiastically that he was booked for over-doing things.
Bergkamp had an eventful afternoon. Booked, bizarrely, for diving as he took evasive action against Irwin's lunge down by the corner-flag, he might have scored twice more before the interval. A fierce 25-yarder heading for the same corner of the net as his goal was this time reached by Jones, who then held the Dutchman's subtle chip. But Wolves still poured forward when opportunity knocked. Carl Cort's low shot, although weak, brought a fumbling save from Jens Lehmann and Sol Campbell pulled off a saving tackle as Ganea moved on to Cameron's pass.
Arsenal's renewed physical commitment changed the game and two goals resulted within 18 minutes of the restart. The second again followed a delightful ball, played by Robert Pires into the path of Henry, who dinked it across Jones for his 99th Premiership goal. Five minutes later Pires, staying on the right where Gilberto Silva had been so ineffectual, crossed beyond the far post, and Vieira headed square for the centre-back Kolo Touré to nod in. In between times, Jose Antonio Reyes replaced Bergkamp to take up the role Arsenal hope he will assume to equally good effect in years to come. He seemed likely to set up the fourth goal for Henry on a two-against-one break, but played the final pass fractionally too close to the diving Jones.
Wolves took off the hapless Cort and found themselves on the receiving end of a lesson in keep-ball for most of the final 20 minutes. "You only sing when you're winning" the visiting supporters were taunted. They do, but then again that is most of the time.
Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
Bergkamp 9, Henry 58, Toure 63
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 29,392
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