EPL, Day 29: Arsenal 2 – Bolton 1

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
March 21st, 2004 • 5:06 am

We knew it was not going to be pretty. The Bolton manager himself had announced that he would do everything to neutralize Arsenal’s attacking force and turn the match into a boring game. As well, Bolton had manage to score twice in the last 15 minutes of the game in the last encounter and hold the Gunners to a 2-2 draw that was the beginning of their undoing last season.

The funny thing is that it definitely did not work out that way. For the first half hour, Arsenal were superb and Bolton rather unable to contain them. The two goals by Pires and Bergkamp were magnificent, and, if you were a Bolton fan, you could fear the worst.

Yet, after the first half hour, Bolton stepped up a gear and started attacking. And they obviously took Arsenal by surprise. They were only able to score on a set piece, following a scramble in the penalty area and a bit of a lucky bounce, but still they were clearly much more dangerous, and the half-time whistle was a welcome source of relief for the Gunners.

Bizarrely, things continued in the first half of the second half much in the same way, with Bolton much more pressing in attack and Arsenal obliged to play on the counter attack. It was as if Arsène Wenger had been unable to adjust his tactics during the half-time break.

Bolton had some very good chances and were mostly missing the finishing touch. Lehmann looked strangely lost on a couple of set pieces. Suddenly Arsenal’s rock solid defence looked rather frail.

But then Kolo Touré started to make a couple of darting runs. Arsenal had two excellent chances on the counter attack — the first one with Bergkamp strangely choosing to pass instead of going for goal himself, and the second one where Thierry Henry was denied at the very last second by a challenge from behind by N’Gotty that may well have been a valid penalty claim. But they failed to transform these chances, and things remained tense until the very last second of the game.

I must say that I am still not convinced about the judiciousness of playing Gilberto on the right flank. He’s a decent defending mid-fielder but is certainly no substitute for someone like Ljunberg, who was only introduced late in the game and didn’t get a chance to do much.

Still, it’s probably better for Arsenal to have a bit of a lull in this type of game — where they still managed to bag the three points and maintain both their unbeaten run and their 9-point lead — than in the crucial Champions’ League and FA Cup games coming up in the next couple of weeks.

With Real Madrid losing in the final of the Spanish Cup earlier this week and again in the Spanish league this week-end, you can’t help but think that Arsenal might just have a decent chance of going through to the final of the Champions’ League. But there’s still lots to do in order to get there.

And the fact that they’ll have to play Manchester United twice in a row will not help. It’s going to be a very testing time for the Gunners! On the other hand, they’ll host Manchester United in the Premier League next week-end with the cushion of a 12-point lead over their rivals. Manchester were back to winning ways yesterday against Tottenham, but the final score line was somewhat flattering and I am not sure they convinced anyone that they can still challenge for the title this season.

The game at Highbury next Saturday will nonetheless be a tremendous opportunity for Arsenal to reassert their dominance, by extending their unbeaten run to a record 30 games and effectively ending Manchester United’s hopes. (A 15-point lead would surely be way too big to overcome in the space of 8 games.)

Exciting times ahead!

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