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Mar 13, 2010

Wenger's Arsenal look like the real deal

There are annual events in football and reports of Real Madrid's interest in Arsene Wenger tend to be among them.

Thankfully for Arsenal, his rebuttals also occur on a yearly basis. Eloquent in his opposition to sport's "financial doping", as he terms it, the Arsenal manager's own model is more organic.

It is why he derives greater satisfaction from his homegrown triumphs. Whether they are moral as well as footballing victories can be disputed, but success is not bought. Their manager will not join Madrid, but questions persist if his side are the real deal. Recent results suggest they are. Much-criticised as Wenger's approach is, Arsenal are very much in the title race after his much-mocked striker scored a winner of vast importance at the KC Stadium on Saturday.

Real Madrid spent some £165 million on forwards last summer. Wenger, predictably, spent nothing. That, and Robin van Persie's absence, has elevated Nicklas Bendtner in the pecking order. His manager's faith has looked misplaced on occasions, such as during his litany of misses against Burnley. On others, it is perfectly justified.

A Champions League hat-trick against Porto was one evening to vindicate Wenger. This was another: when Boaz Myhill pushed a Denilson shot out, Bendtner reacted first, slotting the ball beyond the Hull goalkeeper.

It came in the 93rd minute and, while late goals can suggest an element of fortune, Arsenal score them with such frequency that they cannot be coincidence. "We always leave it late," Wenger said. "Maybe it is not good for my heart. After 90 minutes, it was 1-1 at Stoke and, after 90 minutes, it was 1-1 at Hull." Both matches were duly won.

It is evidence of a sense of purpose and unity. Team spirit cannot be imported in lucrative deals. It is generated. Arsenal possess it and, together with youthful exuberance, it explains the glut of last-gasp goals that have propelled them back into contention.

"It tells you we have desire and mental strength and we never give up," Wenger added. "For a young team, that is great. There is a team spirit there that is special."

Truth be told, the performance wasn't. Hull manager Phil Brown said: "For the first 20 minutes, I was astounded at the football they produced." Thereafter, however, the result was more significant than the performance. Arsenal spent the second half on the offensive and fashioned a series of chances, but Myhill was rarely tested until added time. While Theo Walcott provided an injection of pace, the craft of Cesc Fabregas was missed.

Andrei Arshavin flitted in and out of the game, but provided a fine opening goal. Samir Nasri had begun the move, picking out Bendtner, who weaved his way towards the penalty box before finding the Russian. He eluded George Boateng and Bernard Mendy before beating Myhill.

Hull responded. Jimmy Bullard levelled emphatically from the penalty spot after Sol Campbell had barged into Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. Cue controversy, at least for Hull.

"The pivotal moment was undoubtedly in favour of Arsenal," Brown said. "I admire Sol Campbell. I spoke to him in the summer. He is a big colossus of a lad, but he should have been red-carded. It was offside, but it wasn't offside because the flag didn't go up. The letter of the law was quite simple." Yet his own admission that the Dutchman was offside when Dean Marney flicked the ball into his path weakened his case.

Instead, the man dismissed was Boateng. Already booked, his challenge on Bacary Sagna could have merited a red card in itself. A second yellow was the punishment. "I have no qualms with George Boateng's red card," Brown added.

Deprived of their most experienced campaigner, his side acquitted themselves well. "With ten men, we have harried and chased one of the best footballing teams in the world," Brown said.

It almost brought a point at the end of another surreal week at the KC Stadium. Monday's altercation between Bullard and Nick Barmby drew attention to them and amused in its repercussions.

"I apologised to the Women's Institute during the week for the fighting spirit we showed unfortunately in public," Brown said. "I don't apologise for the fighting spirit we showed today."

MAN OF THE MATCH: Jimmy Bullard. Despite defeat, Bullard showed why he remains so important to Hull when fit. He provided plenty of industry and a touch of inspiration. His fitness could be the biggest factor in their fate.

HULL VERDICT: A spirited display should encourage, even if the result does not. Liam Cooper and Steven Mouyokolo, two inexperienced defenders, acquitted themselves well in the rearguard action in the second half while the talismanic midfielder Stephen Hunt should return soon. But after one victory in 15 Premier League games, Hull desperately require points.

ARSENAL VERDICT: The determination to secure the result was admirable, but it was a day when the squad seemed stretched. Campbell endured an awkward evening and, with William Gallas still on the sidelines, he has acquired an importance. At least Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky should return next week, while Alex Song has now completed his two-match ban.

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