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Mar 20, 2004

Achieving the inevitable

It was a day when Arsenal were on course to break more records than an athlete oozing with steroids and poor old Bolton were charged with the task of halting the inevitable.

A total of 28 Premiership starting line-ups had tried and failed to beat Arsene Wenger's all-conquering champions-elect over the last six months, so how do you tackle a side that don't seem to have a weak link?

Ever creative, Bolton boss Sam Allardyce has frustrated Wenger more than most during his time, so unravelling the methods behind his plan made fascinating viewing and he went for the simple method.

Winning at Highbury has proved beyond most in the last few years, but Bolton have picked up the odd point here of late and frustration has to be the key to quelling the Gunners brilliance. With that in mind, Kevin Davies was employed as a lone striker with a packed midfield designed to get in the way of Arsenal's silky passing as much as start some similar football for Bolton.

The league leaders started in familiar fashion, passing around Bolton's 'back ten' and looking threatening every time Thierry Henry got his foot on the ball.

Indeed, it took the brilliant Frenchman just six minutes to announce his presence with a sensational curling shot that beat Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen and bounced off the bar. As ever, Henry has a habit of taking your breath away with a moment of genius and on this occasion, he used the wind to his advantage in directing his shot.

The argument of whether Henry or Ruud van Nistelrooy take the spoils as the Premiership's finest forward may have been settled in favour of the Frenchman, but he does seem to have picked up a trait from his rival at Old Trafford.

Consistently standing behind the Bolton defensive line, his use of the new offside rules must have concerned Allardyce, yet he hardly needed that yard to tear his opponents apart if he wished.

This was not a Bolton side trying to deny Arsenal a record equally 29-game unbeaten run at the start of an English league season, more a team playing as if a single point would represent history in the making on their part and they may not have been far wrong.

However, after 16 minutes it was time for them to devise Plan B. After Dennis Bergkamp provided the perfect lay-back for Robert Pires on the edge of the box, the Frenchman unleashed a curling shot that had class stamped all over it. It was an inevitable breakthrough for that side relish the chance to break down defensive walls and with a full 74 minutes still to go, it was virtually game over.

You may have thought the gale force winds howling around Highbury may have stunted Arsenal's attacking intent, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Emerson Thome proved that the gusts were proving tricky as his back pass nearly turned into an own goal after 20 minutes, but that was the error of a mere mortal. Arsenal proved again a couple of minutes later that they may be something more than that.

Breaking clear in familiar fashion, Henry's pass to Bergkamp was less than perfect, but the veteran Dutch hitman managed to make the finish look simple as he hit a rising ball low past Jaaskelainen to make it 2-0. Perfection is beautiful to watch at times and Arsenal are getting close to that just now.

The Highbury crowd was subdued despite the tasty offering being served up to them, but this is football to just sit back and admire. Sadly for Bolton, that is all they were managing to do on a day when they must have felt they could be the Gunners' chief party poopers again.

Yet even when they fell two goals behind, Allardyce didn't bother changing a defensive line-up that meant poor old Davies could have read a book instead of standing lonely in a gale. Then, remarkably, Bolton scored. As if winning a corner wasn't enough of a breakthrough, Ivan Campo managed to pick up the pieces in a goalmouth scramble to give Bolton some kind of hope.

Maybe this machine was fallible after all and when Stelios Giannakopoulos hit the cross bar moments before half-time, the words 'Arsenal' and 'edgy' were placed together for the first time in months.

Davies went close with a header moments after the restart and the uncertain performance of Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal did give Bolton heart. The big German may just be a weak link in this dominant side and he may just be exposed when the cream of Europe challenge him in the next few weeks.

The wind was not helpful for either keeper, but Lehmann was a model of uncertainty throughout the second as Arsenal struggled to reproduce the flowing football they showed early on. Despite that, they nearly added to their lead as Freddie Ljungberg and Henry missed when clean through on goal and they did deserve their win and the record that went with it.

Arsene Wenger was in generous mood as much as he met the press afterwards. 'I have to congratulate my players on their achievement as this is something very special,' he stated. 'When you start as season back in August, it is impossible to think that you will be unbeaten in March so it is an incredible effort.

'Even though we didn't play as well as we can in the second half of this game, to go 29 games unbeaten in a league that is as strong as any in the world is a record that deserves to be admired.

'We took our foot off the gas and started to think about Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday night when the score was 2-0. Bolton came back at us and they could have stung us late on, but we deserved the three points for the first 35 minutes when we were brilliant again.'

We deserved the three points for the first 35 minutes when we were brilliant again
Arsene Wenger

Campo nearly snatched a late leveller for Bolton when he hit his close range volley over the bar and manager Allardyce was content with his side's efforts. 'We were outclassed in the first part of the game and looked dead and buried, so I have to take my hat off to my players for coming back into it,' he said.

'I think they should have let us have a point because they still could have set a record then. They are obviously a wonderful team and I see them doing the Treble this season, but we put them under a bit of pressure and can be proud of that.' Never mind 29 games, Arsenal are almost certain to go through this entire Premiership season unbeaten and if they achieve that feat, their place among football's greatest teams will be assured forever more.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Robert Pires - It's hard to isolate a gem among such a glittering array of talent, but he was just ahead of the rest.

FOOD WATCH: - Post-packed sandwiches, chicken legs, meat pies and ladies table service for drinks. And they call this work?

BOLTON VERDICT: A gallant effort from a side that never give up. Allardyce's men didn't appear to have any ideas on how to combat Arsenal in the first half an hour, but they did rattle them after that.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Not at their best in the second half, but the great sides come through when they are stuttering and Arsenal did just that. They have it all and could claim Treble glory in the next few weeks.