Denilson puts 10-man Arsenal top of the pile

Arsenal 2 West Ham United 0: Almunia makes penalty save to preserve lead but Wenger rages at injustice of Vermaelen's red card

Steve Tongue@stevetongue
Sunday 21 March 2010 01:00

Playing Imperial Commander to Chelsea's Kauto Star and Manchester United's Denman, Arsenal last night confounded the notion of a two-horse race by hitting the front of the Premier League chase. This race is not run of course and after the other two have had another outing today, they will be going head to head in Manchester on Saturday week. Arsenal will enjoy watching that one.

West Ham, in contrast, face home matches of huge significance against Wolves on Tuesday and Stoke on Saturday. They wasted an opportunity for an unexpected point here when missing a penalty and then playing against 10 men for the whole of the second half after Thomas Vermaelen was sent off for conceding it. Denilson had put Arsenal ahead in a match of few chances before Cesc Fabregas converted a late penalty to ease fears among the home crowd.

Even while a man short, they were the better side and can continue looking forward to an undemanding set of League fixtures before and after the eagerly awaited ties with Barcelona. So eagerly awaited, in fact, that Arsène Wenger felt his team had become "a bit distracted" by the draw on Friday. As he said, they lacked urgency after scoring early on and it took the sending-off to bring the essential sharpness back to their work. Alex Song, outstanding in midfield in the first half, was equally impressive slotting into Vermaelen's role after the interval and West Ham were only once close to equalising, when the substitute Carlton Cole clipped a post.

The East Enders had arrived with no greater cause for optimism than on the previous Saturday's trip across London to Chelsea. Gianfranco Zola shuffled his pack but Scott Parker, the best visiting player by far on that occasion, was held back for Tuesday.

Like last week they fell behind early, but this time failed to draw level before half-time. Barely five minutes had been played when Denilson was blessed with a lucky break off Valon Behrami and Radoslav Kovac, sending a low drive past Robert Green. As was to be expected, there was much intricate passing thereafter, though with surprisingly few shots to trouble Green, who was watched by Fabio Capello's assistant Franco Baldini.

Little else happened until added time at the end of the first half when Guillermo Franco, chasing a long ball down the middle, went over under gentle contact from Vermaelen. Martin Atkinson, the referee, saw his assistant signal a penalty, backed his man up and decided that Vermaelen was the last defender and had to be sent off. Alessandro Diamanti did not hit his kick well and Manuel Almunia pulled off a good save to his left.

The referee soon booked Kovac for a dive and would probably have had to do the same to Franco had he not awarded a penalty. Wenger obviously felt that should have been the decision and was straight across to complain to the fourth official and waited to confront Atkinson as the teams went down the tunnel. "I felt it was very harsh," he said. On the other hand, Sol Campbell conceded a penalty in similar circumstances at Hull last week and stayed on the field.

Wenger was forced into another change early in the second half with an injury to Nicklas Bendtner. That left Andrey Arshavin at centre- forward, while Cole came on to fill the same role for West Ham, followed by Benni McCarthy. Despite that physical presence and the extra man, the visitors were unable to create any significant chances until 12 minutes from the end when Cole's left-footed drive hit the post. Soon afterwards Matthew Upson handled under pressure from Fabregas, who succeeded where Diamanti had failed from the penalty spot.

Zola, one of life's great optimists, was as positive as ever, lamenting only a failure to use the extra man properly. Wenger purred like an affectionate racehorse trainer praising the "hunger, talent, nerves and maturity" of his charges.

Attendance: 60,077

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Man of the match: Song

Match rating: 6/10

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