Arsenal have two weeks to sort out their defence
Late comeback can’t mask familiar woes at the back for Gunners
Arsene Wenger believes Arsenal are still in the title race after watching his side fight back from two goals behind to salvage a point from a confusing performance against West Bromwich Albion.
The Gunners were staring a first league defeat of 2011 square in the face when Peter Odemwingie capitalised on a laughable mix-up between Manuel Almunia and Sebastien Squillaci to put the Baggies 2-0 in front just before the hour mark.
However Andrey Arshavin’s 70th-minute strike gave Arsenal a lifeline and Robin van Persie struck with 13 minutes to go to make it 2-2.
The Gunners could not find a winner, though, and now trail leaders Manchester United by five points, although with a game in hand on Sir Alex Ferguson’s side who squeezed past Bolton 1-0 at Old Trafford with a late Dimitar Berbatov goal.
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But afterwards Wenger refused to concede that the title was drifting away from his side who have now won just once in six games and looked desperately short on confidence and defensive cohesion at The Hawthorns.
“I felt, no matter what happened today, it will not be over,” said Wenger. “For the team, it was important not to lose. With what happened to us recently, of course, you wonder how you would recover if you lose the game today.
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“I am proud of the spirit we have shown. It shows we are ready for a fight. Mathematically, we lost two points but psychologically we have won a point because when you are 2-0 down with 20 minutes to go, you are not too unhappy to come back.”
Wenger was, however, clearly unhappy with the defending that had gifted Albion the lead and the initiative in a game that was always going to be a severe test for a depleted Arsenal side.
The Gunners had headed to the Midlands without the injured quintet of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Johan Djourou, Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott and it was no real surprise they were found wanting.
But the way the defence went to sleep not only to concede an unnecessary third-minute corner, but then to allow Steven Reid to head it home from close range almost beggared belief.
The second goal was far, far worse though and highlighted the two glaring deficiencies in this Arsenal side that most supporters have been harping on about all season – a lack of credible centre-halves and goalkeepers.
Squillaci and Almunia did their cases for continued inclusion no good whatsoever with their hapless error to allow Albion to double their lead, a comical moment of indecision reminiscent of the way two different players, Laurent Koscielny and Szczesny, had gifted Birmingham that Wembley winner last month.
“We made a massive mistake for the second goal and that could have been a killer for us. You can’t afford to do that,” admitted Wenger, who was right to salute his side’s recovery from 2-0 behind, one which looked highly unlikely until a change of tactics saw the ineffective midfield duo of Denilson and Aaron Ramsey replaced by two strikers, Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner.
Without Fabregas and Song, central midfield is a big headache for Wenger, who will hope to have that pair available again after the forthcoming international break. Walcott is also set to return although maybe not in time for the visit of Blackburn Rovers to the Emirates on April 2.
Wenger refused to be drawn on whether he would consider starting Jens Lehmann in that game, with the 41-year-old German having sat on the bench at the Hawthorns.
But Almunia was dropped after the 3-2 defeat to West Brom at the Emirates back in September, and was badly at fault again here. Having almost left the club in January he is in the side only by default, and if Lehmann can convince Wenger of his fitness over the next fortnight, he could yet emerge as a replacement rather than in the emergency cover capacity he rejoined the club in this week.
It is just one of many decisions that will worry Wenger over the next two weeks. This was a slip that could yet prove fatal, but what is sure is that his side do not have many more chances.
The title is still technically in their hands – if they win the remaining nine games Arsenal will be champions. But that is a notion that currently seems almost impossibly far-fetched, even in this most unpredictable of seasons.