Arsenal spirit raises hopes for Nou Camp
IT IS not often Barcelona and Wolves are mentioned in the same sentence, unless you are talking about the Fifties, yet both have suffered in successive games as a result of Arsenal’s resilience, which itself is a quality more associated with their past.
Saturday’s unconvincing performance was rescued by a header deep into injury time by Nicklas Bendtner to keep the Gunners’ title challenge alive, just as last Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against the mesmerising Catalans was recovered, against the odds, to maintain Arsenal’s interest in that competition.
Arsène Wenger’s team visit the Nou Camp for the return leg tomorrow and, while most layers would not give a side missing Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin much of a chance, their hosts would be foolish to underestimate Arsenal’s spirit.
“It is mental resilience,” said Wenger, after his team struck an injury-time winner for the third time in six Premier League games. “It is the tenacity of the players and the mental strength they have. That’s why I want them so much to be successful because they have the spirit of champions. It’s a pleasure to see that from the team because we not only have technical ability, we also have true spirit.”
Arsenal should have put this one to bed long before Bendtner came off the bench to score his 12th goal of the season, getting ahead of Ronald Zubar to plant a header past the outstanding Marcus Hahnemann following Arsenal’s best move of the match.
The ineffective Eduardo and fitful Theo Walcott had missed the most presentable openings and, while Wolves hardly threatened Manuel Almunia’s goal, their dogged resistance looked likely to yield a valuable point in their fight against relegation.
Bendtner’s intervention changed all that. “We knew Chelsea had won 2-1 but we kept composed and kept trying to pass the ball,” said the Danish striker. “Wolves like to take three minutes every time they have a throw-in and a goal-kick. It was very frustrating but we got what we deserved in the end.”
The way Wenger and his assistant Pat Rice hugged each other on the sidelines was reminiscent of Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd’s celebrations after Manchester United’s late winner against Sheffield Wednesday en route to their first Premier League title in 1993. Yet Wenger was quick to dampen expectations by saying their chances of catching Chelsea would have been “finished” had they drawn with Wolves. “Now at least it is feasible,” he added. Having been criticised for fielding William Gallas and Fabregas against Barcelona, despite question marks over their fitness, and then losing them to injury, Wenger risked being targeted this time for beginning with Samir Nasri, Abou Diaby, Gaël Clichy and Bendtner on the bench. All are likely starters at the Nou Camp.
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy noted Saturday’s involvement of seven of the players who featured in his illfated experimental XI soundly beaten by Manchester United last December, which saw him censured. “That’s how far we’ve come,” he said. Had it not been for captain Karl Henry’s second-half dismissal, a straight red from Andre Marriner for going through the back of Tomas Rosicky, Wolves might have gone further. The feeling was that Rosicky’s reaction, and the sensitivity surrounding suspect challenges against Arsenal in the wake of Aaron Ramsey’s and other injuries, influenced Marriner. He is the Premier League’s most card-happy referee, with 10 reds this season.
“An absolute joke,” Henry said. “I’ve won the ball, Denilson has dropped Rosicky short, I’ve gone in to win it, Rosicky has gone across me to shield the ball. By that time, I have already gone to ground, I’ve seen it again and I’ve nicked the ball. It was never a red card, it’s an absolute disgrace.”
Even Wenger conceded his players had contributed to Henry’s dismissal by surrounding Marriner. “They did, but it’s explainable by the recent history we have with injuries.” Now they can focus on the other Henry.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Sagna, Vermaelen, Campbell, Silvestre; Song (Nasri, 71), Denilson; Walcott, Rosicky, Eboué (Bendtner, 64); Eduardo (Vela, 79). Substitutes not used: Diaby, Fabianski (gk), Clichy, Eastmond.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Hahnemann; Zubar, Craddock, Berra, Elokobi; Mancienne; Foley, Jones (Edwards, 69), Jarvis (Ward, 83), Henry; Doyle (Keogh, 70). Substitutes not used: Hennessey (gk), Ward, Iwelumo, Milijas, Guedioura.
Referee A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Wolverhampton: Mancienne, Jarvis.
Sent off: Henry (66).
Man of the match Hahnemann.