Arsenal traveled to Bolton knowing that only a win would keep their very slim title hopes alive, but they left with no points at all after their sixth defeat of the season. The manner of the defeat was so typical of Arsenal that it's almost unbelievable that it happened, but it's what Arsenal fans have come to expect in recent seasons. Bolton only won three corners in the whole game, but they managed to score from two of them, compared to Arsenal's return of no goals from nine corners won.
Arsene Wenger played the strongest team available to him, with Jack Wilshere replacing Abu Diaby, as the only change from Wednesday night's thrilling 3-3 draw with Tottenham. With injuries at a minimum it was a team which should have has more than enough to beat a Bolton team which lost 5-0 in their FA Cup semi final against Stoke last week. All that Arsenal needed to do in my opinion was to play the game as if it meant absolutely everything to them, and take their chances when they arrived.
Arsenal looked hungry in the early exchanges, and Cesc Fabregas was getting on the ball in very good positions. A couple of times they came close to scoring, after getting in behind the Bolton defence, but when the goal didn't come they started to fade. As the half wore on it was Bolton who created two very good chances, but thankfully Chung-Yong Lee passed when he should have shot with the first opportunity, and Wojciech Szczesny managed to save his second effort. That save from Szczesny was in the 37th minute, and in the scramble which ensued, Laurent Koscielny put the ball out for a corner.
When the corner came in Gary Cahill rose unchallenged to head the ball goalwards, but Samir Nasri was on hand to block it on the line. The rebound popped up for Daniel Sturridge, who headed home from no more than two yards out. I thought the original header from Cahill had crossed the line, but the goal was given to Sturridge. With just seven minutes to go to half time Arsenal were 1-0 down, and nothing other than a win was good enough for them.
The second half started very badly for Arsenal, as Johan Djourou was adjudged to have pushed Sturridge in the box after only 30 seconds, and Bolton were awarded a penalty. It was clear from the replays that Sturridge had learned how to dive from his time at Chelsea with Didier Drogba, but the referee was fooled, and Arsenal looked to be heading for a dire situation. Kevin Davies stepped up to take the penalty, but his poor effort was saved by the legs of Szczesny, and Arsenal were handed a lifeline.
Arsenal seem to react to the shock very quickly, and there leveled the game almost immediately through Robin Van Persie. He had possession outside the Bolton box, and he played the ball to the feet of Cesc Fabregas who was on the penalty spot. Cesc cushioned the ball back to RVP, and his first time shot found the corner of the net to give Arsenal and their fans some much needed hope. That goal set a Premier League record for RVP, as he was the first player to score in seven consecutive away games, but I'm sure he would have swapped the goal for a victory.
I thought Arsenal should have thrown the kitchen sink at Bolton at that stage, but they continued to play at less than full pace in my opinion. As the game wore on, and Bolton tired, Arsenal gradually upped the pace, and a second goal look almost certain. Samir Nasri was played through with only the keeper to beat, but he blasted the ball straight at the keeper, and his rebound was blocked as well.
I thought Arsenal were so far on top at that stage that a goal would have led to a few more, and Bolton would have fallen apart. However the goals didn't come, and Arsenal seemed less likely to score as the match wore on. The scene was set for a dramatic conclusion, and it arrived in the last minute of normal time.
Another poor piece of defending by Arsenal saw Johan Elmander race through on goal with only Szczesny to beat, but his effort was touched around the post for Bolton's third and killer corner. The ball was whipped to the near post where Tamir Cohen met it with a bullet header, and Nasri could do nothing on the line as it whistled over his head into the top corner. When I saw the replay I thought Djourou might have put the ball into his own net, but the goal was given to Cohen.
He celebrated by taking his shirt off to reveal a t-shirt witha picture of his father on it. His father was killed in a car crash last year, and he played for Liverpool during his football career. A visibly upset Cohen obviously dedicated the goal to his father, and the referee followed the letter of the law by showing him a yellow card. It just shows what an ass the law is, as it does not allow the referee any discretion in that situation. My understanding of the yellow card rule for removing a shirt after scoring is that it's a FIFA directive designed to give maximum coverage to shirt sponsors. If a player removes his shirt, then the sponsors logo cannot be seen, as the TV cameras zoom in on the hero of the hour.
The referee added five minutes of extra time, but it was to no avail, as Bolton held on to put the final nail in Arsenal's hopes of winning the Premier League. A couple of months ago Arsenal's season promised so much, but it has ended in abject failure, and all that is left for them is to ensure they can amass enough points to finish in the Champions League places. When the chips were down in the business end of the season Arsenal were found desperately wanting, and it's something the boss has to address in the summer.
Usually Arsenal are accused of playing too much football, and not shooting from outside the box, but yesterday Cesc was very unlucky not to score from distance twice. He hit the post with one effort, and the Bolton keeper made an excellent save from the other one. At times Arsenal were far too intricate though, as they tried to play their way through a packed Bolton defence.
Arsene Wenger bizarrely introduced Marouane Chamakh for Alex Song in the 64th minute, but Chamakh was so far off the pace of the game that he was more of a hinderance than a help. Andrey Arshavin came on for Theo Walcott, and did his best to make things happen, but Aaron Ramsey had very little chance to make an impact when he replaced Jack Wilshere with six minutes left. At times this season there seems to have been no thought put into Arsenal substitutes, and the role they play when they come on, and that was the case again yesterday.
In a game which Arsenal simply had to win there was not enough tempo to their game at times, as passes were hit with too little pace all too often. I though Cesc was guilty of just that far too often, as his attempts to play Arsenal players in were almost always under hit and intercepted. The Arsenal defence was far from it's best, and Djourou had his worst game this season in my opinion. He looked completely off the pace at times, and unaware of what was going on around him too. He has had a very good season, but yesterday will be a day he will want to forget in a hurry.
It's hard to know what's next for Arsenal this season, but they have four Premier League games to play, and they need to get only a few points from those games to ensure Champions League qualification for next season. At the start of the season I though Arsenal would challenge for the top three in the league, and possibly win a domestic cup competition too, and it looks likely that they will finish third now. Their opportunity to win a trophy was lost in one second of terrible defending, in almost the last minute of the Carling Cup final against Birmingham, and it would seem that moment may have caused the rest of their season to collapse.
I don't know if there is another team quite like Arsenal, who build their fans hopes up so much, and then crush them completely and utterly at the end of the season. It has been that way for the last few seasons, and unless something changes dramatically in the attitude of the players and management, it looks likely to be the way for the foreseeable future too. It's so frustrating to see such a clearly talented group of players fail to live up to the hopes and expectations of the fans, and the players themselves, but no matter what pain they put me through, I am and always will be an Arsenal fan.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.
See You Tomorrow.