Van Persie's late strike steadies Arsenal's nerve

Arsenal 2 - Southampton 2
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The Independent Online

Apart from an outstanding ability to craft attractive, winning football teams, Arsène Wenger has enhanced something else over the insanity of the eight years he's spent in the Premiership. His sense of humour.

Apart from an outstanding ability to craft attractive, winning football teams, Arsène Wenger has enhanced something else over the insanity of the eight years he's spent in the Premiership. His sense of humour.

"Mentally, it was very important not to lose a second game on the trot," he said after this surprising, entertaining draw against Southampton, "because you (the media) would say that we would then lose 49."

That's about as likely as Sir Alex Ferguson and Thierry Henry breaking a thin crust together for the next Pizza Hut advert. But, if it were not for Robin van Persie's wonderfully measured strike with seconds remaining, Arsenal would have lost consecutive Premiership games for the first time since October 2002.

That too came with a home defeat as Blackburn Rovers won 2-1 which, in one of those little quirks, immediately followed another Wayne Rooney-inflicted loss - on that occasion with his marvellous, calling-card strike when in Everton blue.

Van Persie's goal - his second in a week - prevented a repeat after two late headers by Southampton's Rory Delap had exposed the vulnerability at the heart of Arsenal's defence, which was amplified by the lack of the injured Sol Campbell. It also prevented what Wenger called a "confidence crisis" enveloping his players.

Such a statement appears curious in the extreme from Wenger. But more than any other team his players' style thrives on a cocktail of brio and belief. It was sorely lacking throughout the first half against a severely depleted but well-marshalled Southampton side. It was sorely lacking when Henry slammed a penalty against a post and it was sorely lacking until he opened the scoring, with under a quarter of the game to go, as he slid the ball past Antti Niemi from Dennis Bergkamp's wedged pass.

Wenger had seen the signs when his players assembled in the dressing-room before kick-off. Only Pascal Cygan was retained from the team that had so joyfully destroyed Manchester City in the League Cup in midweek. For the other 10, who had been on duty at that other stadium in Manchester three days earlier, defeat to United was their last taste of combat (probably not the best choice of word).

"The anxiety was a lot higher, it was less light-hearted," Wenger said of the pre-match mood. "It was concentrated. Maybe too much." His fears were realised and even though Niemi saved smartly from Bergkamp in the first period and from Fredrik Ljungberg and substitute Robert Pires in the second, Arsenal's play lacked its customary grace and, above all, its customary pace.

"Usually we go out and take a few risks," Bergkamp admitted. "But we seemed happy with slow ball movement and not looking for the killer pass."

That they still created a host of opportunities says much about their creativity - Henry had one of his poorer games and yet was the fount of most chances. But it is also a comment on the limitations of Southampton. They lacked their four main strikers, struck the post and scored their first goals in 476 Premiership minutes but did not have the ability to hold on. This morning their head coach Steve Wigley will be cursing how close he came to a first win in his ninth Premiership game.

Although the chairman Rupert Lowe appears determined to stick with Wigley - and there were signs that his faith is not misplaced - a judgement day is looming. Southampton now face the three promoted clubs with a derby against Portsmouth thrown in. All this month.

"You would have hung us," was another of Wenger's comments to describe the reaction he expected if Arsenal had lost. That would not have been true although it would have made tomorrow's Champions' League tie at home to Panathinaikos all the more nerve-jangling. If Wigley is still winless at the end of November, the noose may be awaiting him instead.

Goals: Henry (67) 1-0; Delap (80) 1-1; Delap (85) 1-2; Van Persie (90) 2-2.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Cygan, Touré, Cole; Ljungberg (Van Persie, 83), Edu (Fabregas, 65), Vieira, Reyes (Pires, 61); Bergkamp, Henry. Substitutes not used: Alumnia (gk), Senderos

Southampton (4-4-2): Niemi; Kenton, Lundekvam, Jakobsson, Higginbotham; Nilsson, Telfer, Delap, A Svensson (Prutton, 85); Ormerod (McCann, 75), Blackstock (Best, 90). Substitutes not used: Blayney (gk), Baird.

Referee: M Messias (S Yorkshire).

Booked: Arsenal: Vieira. Southampton: Telfer, Kenton, Ormerod, McCann.

Man of the match: Delap.

Attendance: 38,141.

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