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Feb 14, 2007

Little love lost on Valentine's Day

Just where Arsene Wenger and Sam Allardyce wanted to spend Valentine's Day: with each other, separated only by a few feet in two distinctly chilly technical areas in Bolton. There is little love lost between the two; it is not so much a case of 'opposites attract' as 'opposites repel'.

If this was a relationship, it would be abusive with one believing the other can, and should, be bullied mentally and physically. Bolton briefly outmuscled Arsenal for the equaliser that took this match into extra time, before Fredrik Ljungberg and Emmanuel Adebayor ensured the visitors progressed to the last 16 of the FA Cup.

So this was the revenge of the battered wife as Wenger out-thought Allardyce. Bolton's supposed psychological advantage counted for little while their usual height advantage was negated by the selection of one of the taller Arsenal teams.

A tactical triumph was augmented by a decisive move from the bench. Bolton's resistance was ended by an alliance of two of Wenger's replacements in extra time, Jeremie Aliadiere making the angled run that preceded Ljungberg's assured finish in his first game for eight weeks. Then, in a bizarre and rather eventful finale, Julio Baptista became the second Arsenal player to place a penalty high over the bar after surely the first professional foul of Nicolas Anelka's career, and then Adebayor belatedly gave Arsenal a two-goal margin of victory.

Wenger's tactic to combat Bolton's height was to field Gilberto Silva, his best header, at centre back. Like Patrick Vieira, whose mantle the Brazilian has inherited, he has looked accomplished as a stand-in defender in the past.

In Gilberto's case, that included the final half-hour of Arsenal's two previous Premiership games after Philippe Senderos' sending-off at Middlesbrough and Johan Djourou's substitution against Wigan. Having slipped seamlessly into the back four, he started there.

He displayed the anticipation required - not to mention admirable bravery - with a forceful block from Abdoulaye Meite's shot, the Senegalese following up after Stelios had struck the bar.

If he was exposed defensively, it was by slicing an El-Hadji Diouf cross against his own post, but otherwise Wenger's hunch paid off. It helped that, more often than not, the pace of Anelka was pitted against Kolo Toure, presumably to Gilberto's relief.

Defensive solidity provided a platform to play. 'We had some patches of total football at technical level,' said a delighted Wenger. 'It was an electric game with exceptional pace. We had a good mixture between fighting spirit and composure on the ball. I was very proud of our performance. We have at the moment an exceptional mental strength. There was no psychological handbrake in our head.

'To miss two penalties in a game with two Brazilians, that is exceptional as well,' said Wenger. The result allowed him to be laconic.

Gilberto could be faulted was in his second-half spot kick after Julio Baptista was tripped by Tal Ben Haim, whose tackling was mistimed all evening and eventually brought a brace of yellow cards. His penalty was lifted high over the bar and, together with when Adebayor advanced from the centre circle, rounded the keeper and struck the post, it represented one of two gilt-edged chances to kill the game off.

Arsenal, who have made a habit of conceding first, left themselves in the unusual position of not having to chase the game by striking early after a stylish counter-attack with an element of fortune. After an initial incision by Alexander Hleb on the right flank, Tomas Rosicky's pass was intercepted by Ivan Campo, but his touch took the ball into the path of Adebayor.

Stelios was covering, but only succeeded in deflecting the ball into the roof of Jussi Jaaskelainen's net when then Togolese shot.

Instead, however, they conceded late on. Bolton's set-piece threat, until injury-time, had only resulted in one misplaced header from Abou Diaby that drew a fine save from Manuel Almunia, produced their equaliser. With Jussi Jaaskelainen up for an injury-time corner and serving as a distraction, Ivan Campo won his header and, from close range, Abdoulaye Meite turned it in with his knee. 'It's not our main strength,' admitted Wenger.

Allardyce added: 'I can't complain really,' though he did dispute the red card shown to Tal Ben Haim. 'It was a great cup tie and a great effort by our players.'

On the final whistle, his handshake with Wenger was perfunctory. It was never going to be anything warmer, but the Arsenal manager could savour his Valentine's Day in Bolton.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Tomas Rosicky - Another display of imaginative passing and incisive running from the Czech. He may not provide as many goals as Robert Pires, but, if anything, the Frenchman's replacement is the more accomplished footballer.

• MOAN OF THE MATCH: Fouls rarely get more professional than that committed by Anelka on Adebayor in injury time. The Arsenal striker was through on goal but referee Chris Foy, perhaps fearing Sam Allardyce's reaction if he dismissed two Bolton players, only booked the Frenchman. 'Chris Foy should never have sent Tal Ben Haim off tonight,' said Allardyce. Perhaps, but he should have red-carded Anelka.

• BOLTON VERDICT: Before the match, Wenger described Bolton as 'more technical now' which, coming from him, had to be praise, yet there was little evidence of it, besides the individual threat of Nicolas Anelka. While Bolton can revel in their status as outsiders, there would be more popular acclaim for Allardyce if his current team could play with the elan former players such as Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff displayed.

• ARSENAL VERDICT: Some of the rancour may be absent from their games with Bolton when Thierry Henry and Jens Lehmann are absent, but it is notable that Arsenal often appear more assured without their supposed senior players. Adebayor appears liberated when his captain is absent while Almunia is in arguably his best form for Arsenal.


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