At some point it was inevitable that Robin van Persie's goalscoring touch would finally desert him, it was just a pity for Arsenal yesterday that they had neglected to arrange an alternative.
The man chasing the record for the most Premier League goals in one calendar year for once failed to score at the Emirates, although it should be said that Wayne Hennessey's monumental performance in goal for Wolverhampton Wanderers played a significant part. The problem for Arsenal was that when Van Persie failed to score a winner, no one else stepped up to the plate.
Presented with the opportunity to go ahead of Chelsea and into fourth place, Arsène Wenger's team blew it. A side that had dropped just five points in their previous 10 league games failed to win a game that they dominated. They passed and they probed. They took control of possession. Wolves nicked a first-half equaliser. It was a familiar Emirates story.
That is not to diminish the performance of Mick McCarthy's team who were dangerous enough in attack to take their half-chance when it was presented to Steven Fletcher. But Arsenal should have won this match in which they played the final 14 minutes against 10 men after a red card for Nenad Milijas. In the ensuing blitz, Arsenal missed a lot and Hennessey saved even more.
For Wenger, who was serenity itself given that his team also had a decent shout for a penalty just before the hour, it was primarily a missed chance to make ground on Manchester City and Chelsea. "There are going to be lots of twists and turns in the title race," Wenger said. "That's the frustrating thing for us. That is the worrying thing. You have to take your opportunities."
McCarthy was less prosaic. Asked whether he thought Milijas's tackle on Mikel Arteta was worthy of the red card that Stuart Attwell produced, the Wolves manager replied: "Not while I've got a hole in my bum."
The 29-year-old referee did not have his best day. His decision to send off Milijas was harsh and Wolves, McCarthy said, will be appealing. Earlier, Alex Song had kicked Milijas and shoved Stephen Hunt and earned only a booking – which is what Milijas's challenge on Arteta warranted. Attwell might also have given a penalty for a handball by Christophe Berra on 57 minutes.
McCarthy blamed the "rarefied" atmosphere in the Emirates for pressurising Attwell into the decision. That was news to many of us who could detect little in the way of atmosphere at all until the closing stages. "This [the Emirates] is a difficult place to work whether you are a player, coach, manager, referee or an assistant," McCarthy said. "It's pretty pressurised out there and I think there was a lot of pressure on him [Attwell] to do it.
"He gave what he saw and if he sees it again on television, he can't do that [stick to his decision]. He [Milijas] has got his foot on the ground, makes contact with the ball. I don't think he leaves the ground. Somebody said to me he has got his studs up but you generally do if you tackle with your foot sliding in."
Arsenal took the lead in the eighth minute when Yossi Benayoun slipped the ball to Gervinho and, instead of his usual nervousness in one-on-one situations, he took the ball clear of Hennessey and picked his spot between two defenders on the line. They should have put the game out of sight, but yesterday was anything but straightforward for Arsenal.
Hennessey made the first of three great saves from Van Persie after 30 minutes, pushing a shot past his near post. The equaliser came from Arsenal's failure to clear a corner. Johan Djourou's header came to Hunt on the edge of the area. He beat Tomas Rosicky to get a shot in that was deflected and Fletcher reacted sharply to head the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.
"What we have to learn is that when we were 1-0 up we became too comfortable in some departments," Wenger said. "We were caught at 1-1 when we could only blame ourselves. The keeper had the game of his life. Well done to them. I don't know how many shots we had on goal. It's the kind of game you play 20 times, win 19 and draw one. And this was the one."
The goal aside, Rosicky did not have a bad game in an Arsenal team that was not quite at full strength. Aaron Ramsey, a late substitute, was on the bench for a league game for only the second time this season. Theo Walcott, suffering from a stomach complaint, was missing. Fletcher's goal was the first Wolves had scored in an away fixture against Arsenal for 27 years.
The handball by Berra was in the 57th minute from a shot hit by Laurent Koscielny and even by then Wolverhampton were hanging on. Hennessey tipped a Van Persie free-kick over on 66 minutes and then, from the corner, made arguably his best save of the match from a header by Per Mertesacker. Van Persie missed the target when the ball broke loose.
The Wolves goalkeeper grew in confidence as his team were pushed further and further back. "I think he is one of the best in the league and he gets a bit to do at times playing behind us but we know we can rely on him and trust him," McCarthy said. "It was a great performance from him."
Forward came Arsenal. Rosicky, the substitute Andrei Arshavin and Van Persie all had shots that went narrowly wide. With eight minutes left, Hennessey made his third significant save from Van Persie – from another free-kick. Sent on in desperation as another striker, Marouane Chamakh succeeded in getting his own head in the way of Van Persie's and the Moroccan almost incapacitated Arsenal's greatest goal threat.
The last save the Wolves goalkeeper had to make was from Thomas Vermaelen in the 89th minute. It had been an outstanding performance from the Wolves goalkeeper. Hennessey, more than any other, had earned his team their point.
Man of the match Hennessey.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee S Attwell (Warwickshire).
Attendance 59,686.Reuse content