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Apr 3, 2010

Bendtner spares Walcott's blushes

Theo Walcott would do well to quiz Nicklas Bendtner on where he discovered his midas touch as the two most perplexing characters featuring in Arsenal's title charge endured contrasting afternoons at the Emirates Stadium.

• Arsenal 1-0 Wolves: Last-gasp Bendtner winner
• Premier League review: Chelsea go top, Gunners late show
• Premier League gallery

Three days after Walcott stole the headlines for his match-changing introduction against Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final and Bendtner received plenty of criticism for looking out of his depth against the European champions, the roles were reversed as a Bendnter goal 93 minutes and 57 seconds into this game handed Arsenal three points they looked destined to miss out on.

Analysis of Walcott's faltering performance may be buried amid the euphoria of Bendtner's heroics, yet it was clear by the end that the youngster intent on filling the right-flank berth for England at this summer's World Cup finals would rather be anywhere else but on a field where his misery was mounting by the minute.

With each fluffed cross and every blind alley he ran down earning him increasing levels of scorn from the Emirates Stadium regulars, it seemed as if Walcott's miserable afternoon was complete as he spurned a glorious chance to force the Arsenal breakthrough as injury time ticked by at the end of the game. His confidence has long been drained away as he failed to convert with a flicked shot in the box that sparked the exodus of many a frustrated Arsenal supporter, yet those early movers should know better than to gibe up on this team and the increasingly influential Bendnter.

After his last-minute winner snatched the points at Hull a couple of weeks back, the big Dane rose highest in the box to snatch a point away from Wolves and lead Wenger to conclude that his side are firmly back in the title race as they closed to within three points of new favourites Chelsea.

"It is an important victory as we were up against a side who defended so well and a keeper who performed heroically," said Wenger, refereeing to Wolves' American stopper, Marcus Hahnemann. "Wolves were resilient and intelligent in the way they went about things and I give them credit for that, but I know my team never gives up.

"After the Champions League game in the week, the points is all we needed today and it shows the great strength of character we have in this side that we have so many late goals. Now we are only three points behind and the sides ahead of us have a difficult schedule for the rest of the season, so we will keep fighting until the end."

The victory Arsenal did their best to avoid may never have materialised were it not for a ridiculous intervention from referee Andre Marriner, who allowed himself to be sucked into the euphoria of the home side as he sent off Wolves skipper Karl Henry for an innocuous challenge on Tomas Rosicky after 65 minutes. An honest challenge for the ball was greeted with a reaction that convinced the gullible match official that a heinous act of violence had taken place, yet Marriner should be shrewd enough to resist such pressure.

Sure this Gunners team have been unfortunate with injuries this season and the mood around the club has developed to a point where they like to feel as if, to use Wenger's own expression, it is "Arsenal against the world", but this was not a challenge that came with any sense of malicious intent.

"He did not appear to have any intention to hurt Rosicky," was Wenger's assessment of the challenge, but Wolves boss Mick McCarthy was a little more forthright as he tried to find a silver lining on a day when his side came so close to the point that may have been enough to secure their Premier League status for another year.

"It was a real hard-working and honest performance from a bunch of lads who have developed into a decent team, but losing the way we did in the last minute because we were fatigued is hard to take," fumed McCarthy. "Karl Henry shouldn't have been sent off, what can you can. He won the ball. Look, Arsenal are better than us, I have no problem admitting that, but you don't want to lose like that."

For much of this game, Arsenal fluffed more lines than a debut performer in a Broadway musical as Wolves grew in confidence to the point where it seemed as if they could see off the threat of an increasingly weary and battled scarred opponent with some comfort. Even after Henry's unfortunate departure, Wolves looked content to hold out an Arsenal side hampered by the faltering Walcott and an inability to finish off the chances they were creating. Injuries dictated that Wenger was forced to make changes aplenty to his line-up and yet the "other" team in this unpredictable title race burst out of the blocks in this game with real intent, with Walcott looking eager to build on his impressive effort against Barcelona in the opening 20 minutes.

However, once Wolves cut down his supply by double banking defenders on his flank, the plan B Walcott is often accused of lacking failed to materialise and by the time the clocked ticked past an hour of this game, his frustration was being exastperated by the increasing discontent flowing in his direction from the stands.

As is so often the case with this precocious speed demon, Walcott's battle to keep control of the ball when he is travelling with such lightning speed is not always assured and his end product was poor for most of the afternoon. His inability to get a cross past Wolves left-back George Elokobi became something of an annoying habit and by the end, Theo looked destined to emerge as the big story of this game for all the wrong reasons.

That was before Bendtner's intervention and while Walcott is bound to have felt frustrated to blow his big chance to cement a spot in this Gunners team, he can console himself in the revival the curiously numbered Arsenal No.52 has enjoyed in the last few weeks. Anyone who witnessed Bendtner's laughable performance against Burnley last month will realise revivals are possible from even the most desperate of situations and Walcott should look to follow his lead in what is left of this season.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Marcus Hahnemann

This agile American stopper has proved to be one of the star turns of this Premier League effort for Wolves and his handling was impressive again against the Gunners.

REFEREE MADNESS: Andre Marriner simply has to rescind the ridiculous red card he handed out to Wolves skipper Karl Henry. It was amateur officiating on a stage where such incompetence should not be accepted.

RAMSEY THANKS: Injured Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey offered warm thanks for the support he has received since his horrific broken leg in the matchday programme for this game. "There was something like 50,000 messages sent to me within a couple of days and I'm very thankful for the support," says the Welshman.

ARSENAL VERDICT: It has been hard to take Arsenal's title challenge seriously in a season when they have been thumped by their chief Premier League rivals and rarely looked a consistent threat, but they have staying power that means their ambitions cannot be ignored.

WOLVES VERDICT: Mick McCarthy deserves plenty of credit for moulding a team capable of standing up to the demands of the Premier League on a modest budget. They worked hard enough to be worthy of a point in this game.

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