Saturday, February 12, 2011
Gunners show their bouncebackability
Kevin Palmer, Emirates Stadium
As a fourth Newcastle goal crashed past a shell-shocked Arsenal defence on an extraordinary afternoon at St James' Park a week ago, it was not merely the loss of two points that had the potential to destroy Arsene Wenger's latest title challenge.
• Premier League gallery
When Arsenal cruised into a 4-0 lead as they produced some sublime football on Tyneside last Saturday, Wenger's most devoted doubters were beginning to wonder whether scepticism over the Gunners' credentials had been misplaced, but the second 45 minutes of a never-to-be-forgotten fixture raised a familiar clutch of doubts all over again.
When the going is good, Arsenal can look like the best team in this unpredictable Premier League, though there is always a feeling that the tide has a habit of turning against them at a more damaging rate than any of the other sides battling it out at the top of the table.
Every team is entitled have the odd off-day, yet Arsenal's ability to self destruct always appears to be closer to the surface than their rivals. This team often reacts more negatively to setbacks than any other with a tendency to allow a sense of injustice to linger an alarming trait.
The last time Arsenal surrendered a big lead to draw 4-4 against Tottenham a couple of years back, Wenger was forced to admit a fear of conceding late goals haunted his side for the months that followed. He must have quivered with uncertainty as he waited to see how his troops would bounce back after their altogether more disturbing collapse against Alan Pardew's men.
Defeats have tended to come in bursts for Arsenal in recent years, so a home fixture against relegation strugglers Wolves offered them the perfect opportunity to banish their latest horrors.
Yet such a story was never likely to be written in this game. If Wolves had scored first in this clash, the potential was there for Arsenal to plunge into a spiral of self-doubt. Those fears were banished once Robin van Persie bagged a brilliant opener after 16 minutes.
A perfectly-weighted through ball by skipper Cesc Fabregas needed a clinical volleyed finish from the Dutchman and he duly applied just that, swivelling inside the box to place a shot past Wolves keeper Wayne Hennessey.
The rest of the first half was far from vintage Arsenal, yet any nerves in their much maligned defensive ranks were diluted as Wolves only threatened sporadically from set-play routines. Indeed, the home side should have been further ahead at the break as Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott were guilty of missing glorious chances to double their side's advantage.
As Arsenal continued to miss chances aplenty, there was always a danger that Wolves could snatch a goal out of nothing, but Van Persie ended the contest as he combined with Walcott to rip open the visitors' defence once again and the Dutchman made no mistake as he drilled the ball past an overworked Hennessey.
With that, a curiously muted air then fell over Emirates Stadium as both sides appeared to settle for the 2-0 scoreline, as the Wolves side that beat United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City this season were nowhere to be seen, but Wenger was not complaining.
"There was no hangover from the Newcastle game and I never expected that there would be," stated a defiant Wenger. "When you look at what happened last Saturday, we produced a fantastic performance when it was 11 against 11 and our problems only came after the red card.
"We continued that type of football against Wolves and the only complaint I have from this game is that we did not score more goals. Their goalkeeper was inspired and we missed too many chances, but anyone who was looking for a negative reaction from the Newcastle game were to be disappointed.
"This team have proved they are capable of maintaining their focus on all competitions this season and even though the Newcastle game looked like it was going to leave a lasting mark on us, I feel we are better than that now. We believe we can win this Premier League and hopefully we will prove that in what is left of this season."
Wolves boss McCarthy offered a typically blunt assessment of his side's efforts, with the press room occupants chuckling at his honest critique. "A murder took place on that pitch today and we were the victims," stated the former Republic of Ireland boss. "We tried everything, but they were better than us from start to finish.
"You can ask me any question you want and I will give you the same answer. I'm not upset because Arsenal are clearly a better team than us and we can only aspire to be as good as them one day. Without my keeper, we could have lost by eight goals here, but the West Brom game next week was always going to be the big one for us."
So Arsenal confirmed that their Geordie demons have been banished to the history books, yet Barcelona are unlikely to be quite as welcoming when they come to this venue in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Hennessey - As Wolves boss Mick McCarthy readily admitted, Hennessey kept the score line respectable in this one-sided contest as he made save after save to deny the Gunners.
• WALCOTT WOES: Arsenal wide man Theo Walcott missed a host of chances to kill off Wolves, as he endured one of those afternoons that infuriate his admirers. Quite how he missed an open goal at the start of the game was a mystery for all.
• ARSENAL VERDICT: After Wayne Rooney's heroics in the Manchester derby, Wenger's men knew they had no margin for error against Wolves and this win ensures they remain the most United's likely challengers in the title race. They will face much tougher tests than this in the months ahead.
• WOLVES VERDICT: Outclassed from the off, Mick McCarthy's men offered little attacking intent as they made life all too easy for Arsenal. They will need to toughen up away from home if they are to survive in the Premier League.