By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are back on top of the Premiership after edging a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Blackburn at Highbury on Sunday afternoon.
Arsène Wenger's side were purring to perfection in the first half after Dennis Bergkamp put them into an 11th-minute lead. Robert Pires hit the post while Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira both missed decent opportunities.
But Blackburn mounted a spirited rearguard action after the interval. Markus Babbel's 'goal' was disallowed for climbing while, with seven minutes left, Dwight Yorke somehow screwed his shot over the bar from five yards out.
Still the scorebook will say another "1-0 to the Arsenal" and this was a satisfying end to a highly-significant week that saw Wenger's men win Champions League Group B and extend their unbeaten Premiership run to 16 games.
Within 48 hours of Wednesday's 2-0 victory over Lokomotiv Moscow that ensured Champions League qualification, ever-shrewd Wenger was urging his players to move their focus back to domestic matters. Therefore it was no surprise that the manager sent out his strongest side, one that was unchanged from that emphatic midweek win.
Last season, Blackburn beat Arsenal home and away. The match at Highbury was a procession of chances by the home side but Graeme Souness's outfit snatched victory. The win had been set up by a spectacular own goal by Edu after only six minutes.
This time they might have been trailing after 23 seconds when Yorke found himself clear in the middle of the penalty area 12 yards out. However steered a sidefoot shot wide of Jens Lehmann's left-hand post. Blackburn looked lively but did not threaten again before Arsenal took the lead.
Freddie Ljungberg found Toure, who had raced up from right back. The Ivory Coast international burst past Vratislav Gresko and muscled him off the ball to reach the byline. As Craig Short came to clear, Toure poked the ball to Bergkamp on the corner of the six-yard box and the Dutchman picked his spot between Friedel and the near-post.
After scoring, Bergkamp rushed to congratulate Toure, he knew his second goal of the season was heavily indebted to the ever-improving defender.
Arsenal now took the game by the scruff of the neck. An unmarked Pires went for precision not power with a header from 10 yards out. It was the wrong choice and Friedel saved easily under his bar.
Blackburn still had attacking ambitions and all half they threw cross after cross into the Arsenal area. But Lehmann collected everything.
However, Arsenal were still moving through the gears. In the 21st minute, Bergkamp flicked the ball away from the beleaguered Gresko and Ljungberg arrowed a low pass to Henry inside the area. The French striker swivelled to send a clever pass across the area to Vieira, who he had somehow spotted was hurtling up from midfield. Unfortunately the captain could not find the finish the move deserved. Had it been Vieira to Henry, it would have probably been goal No 2.
On the half-hour, Arsenal pushed hard on the accelerator pedal again. Pires was allowed time and space in the middle of the Blackburn penalty area to curl a right-foot shot against the post. Then Henry's scintillating run through the midfield ended with a fast, low pass into Bergkamp's feet but the Dutchman could not squeeze his shot past Friedel. It would not have counted anyway as the assistant referee had flagged for offside.
Pires might have done better with a header in the 39th minute then as time ticked away Arsenal capitalised on Tugay's error but Henry's deflected shot bounced off Friedel's leg.
After the break, Souness made a change - Steven Reid for Gresko. It had no immediate effect. Bergkamp put Ljungberg clear but his rasping drive bounced off Friedel's chest and the American keeper recovered.
However, after Andy Cole replaced Paul Gallagher, Blackburn did start to exert considerable pressure and even put the ball in the net through Babbel in the 59th minute. But, in steering home his far-post header, the German international climbed all over Toure.
The pendulum was swinging the visitors' way. Certainly Arsenal were struggling to recapture their first-half dominance and had little sustained pressure of their own.
Only the late, lunging left hand of Lehmann stopped the visitors getting back on level terms in the 67th minute. Cole fed the ball to Barry Ferguson on the left of the Arsenal area and the Scotman's low shot was heading for the corner before the German keeper intervened.
Henry rose high to head Bergkamp's free-kick straight at Friedel as the home side started to work their way back in the game. But still the upfield passes were not finding their attacking targets. Wenger bolstered his midfield by replacing Bergkamp with Ray Parlour with Ljungberg pushing further forward.
Yorke somehow scooped a shot over the bar from five yards out after a corner with seven minutes left. You sensed that was Blackburn's chance. Henry might have made them pay with four minutes to go but sidefooted meekly at Friedel when he should have done better.
In the final seconds, the Frenchman squared a pass across the face of goal to Pires but, from just six yards out, his shot was deflected behind.
It was not the sweetest way to rack up your 16th unbeaten Premiership game - but they all count.
|Bergkamp shapes to shoot||..and slides his shot past Friedel|
|Toure congratulates our Dutchman||The team thank Dennis|
|Vieira slides in on Emerton||Toure takes on Neill|
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