Bolton 0 Arsenal 2 (Fabregas 28, Merida 78)
A trip to the Reebok is tough at the best of times, but with the assortment of elbows and studs looking to impress a new manager, today was always going to be doubly so. Without our premier holding midfielder, and denied the presence and bite of Nasri with a late injury, our midfield had a distinctly wobbly feel to it, even with the return of the immense Fabregas. Eastmond was handed his first Premiership start, and the game looked set up for us to struggle.
In the early minutes, we did – Bolton started quickly, Klasnic firing in from an offside position, and a poor touch from Davies denying him a great chance. But we slowly imposed ourselves on the game, and should have had a penalty when Cesc was brought down by Jaaskelainen. No matter, the captain was soon to make his mark, finishing off a terrific move by burying a one-two with Eduardo in a congested area. It was a sublime series of touches that few teams would be capable of preventing.
Cesc’s reward for the goal was for Bolton to decide he was enough of a threat to kick out of the game. A second penalty shout looked good on a replay, but the crowd of legs made it difficult for Phil Dowd to see and he awarded the free kick the wrong way. More ugly was Matt Taylor pushing his leg into the back of the prone Spaniard’s neck in the aftermath. Minutes later, Robinson took him out with a crude late challenge and was booked.
All this served to make the game more fiery, which suited the hosts – their intention was purely to provoke, kick, and bully their way to victory. Rosicky reacted to a couple of kicks by Klasnic on Diaby by cynically bringing the Croatian down, picking up a yellow card for his trouble, but otherwise the players kept calm in the face of a typical Bolton display.
As for chances, Eastmond had a volley well saved, while at the other end Klasnic nearly beat Gallas on the stroke of half time, but the best opportunity fell to Cesc again, side footing wide from eight yards after Eduardo had missed Arshavin’s cut back.
The lead was merited at half time, but fragile all the same, and Bolton came out after the break as impressively as they had at the start of the game. Taylor missed two glorious opportunities, ballooning one from ten yards before not realising the space he was in, shooting wide from outside the box when he had a clear run on goal.
Much of the trouble was coming down our left side, where Traore couldn’t cope with the movement of Lee in particular, although in mitigation he was getting absolutely no help from Arshavin. Wenger acted, first withdrawing Eastmond, who had started well but faded, in place of Merida, leaving Cesc and Diaby to sit a little further back, and then replacing Rosicky with Clichy to shore up that flank.
As it happened, the substitutions did more than just keep things tight, they resulted in the second goal – Cesc was again the catalyst with a driving run, eventually laying the ball off to Eduardo, whose cross was deflected to Merida. The Spaniard controlled with his left, calmly buried the chance with his right, and the game was won.
Cesc’s performance was something special. He was always a great passer, and is now also an excellent finisher, yet he is somehow so much more than that – he brings that drive and inspiration you look to your captain for. For years Liverpool fans have purred at Gerrard’s ability to pull his team through a game, Cesc now possesses that quality, and he is still only 22. Incredible.
Certain others are facing flak at the moment, with varying levels of unfairness. Arshavin has been out of position, Traore is very decent for a third choice left back, but the most annoying criticism has been reserved for Eduardo. Fighting his way back to fitness and form, his touch is improving, yet it seems even his superb header to win the West Ham cup tie wasn’t enough to convince. Jamie Redknapp said after today’s game that Eduardo was carried, yet who was it who actually provided both assists, the first a perfectly weighted one touch pass? That’s right – Eduardo. Give the guy a break.
Overall, it was the sort of game we could easily have dropped points in, and perhaps would have done in previous seasons, but this team is certainly resilient, personified by the ever-combative Vermaelen, who, in partnership with Gallas, protected the clean sheet as if his life depended on it. It was our first away from home in any competition since Mannone’s heroics against Fulham in September.
As for Bolton, it seems ingrained into the players to go about the game in a thuggish way. Coyle believes in a footballing approach, but he has a tough job on to get that group to play the way he wants. Wenger will certainly bear their style in mind before allowing Wilshere to join on loan.
A repeat result at the Grove on Wednesday night would take us top of the league, an unfathomable position in the aftermath of the humbling by Chelsea. It would be a perfect tonic to take into the run of games against the other top sides, and if we come out in mid-February only a few points off the pace, we will have to be taken extremely seriously given our favourable run-in.
It feels good to be in a title race. Make no mistake about it, we’re in this one.