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Apr 18, 2010

Arsenal finally exit the title race

Cruelly and conclusively, dramatically and decisively, weirdly and, for Wigan, wonderfully, Arsenal exited the title race. The improbable has become the impossible. There will be no silverware at the Emirates Stadium this year.

• Premier League Team of the Week
• Premier League gallery
• Wigan 3-2 Arsenal

They departed in a manner that may appear familiar: having been propelled back into contention by a flurry of late goals, they conceded three. After spending a decade and a half importing players who are young, quick and French, they saw a man who answers that description, in Charles N'Zogbia, score a superlative winner. Criticised for their idealistic style of play, they were overcome by a Wigan team with a similar ethos.

Not that a hint of imitation renders it any easier. For Arsenal, too much was recognisable. Accusations that have been levelled, with varying degrees of justification, for several years were relevant at the DW Stadium: there was a lack of ruthlessness, evidence of a soft underbelly and, above all, questionable goalkeeping.

Lukasz Fabianski's 25th birthday amounted to a memorable one. Sadly for the Pole, so culpable in Arsenal's elimination from the FA Cup, he erred disastrously in another competition. He dropped N'Zogbia's 89th-minute corner almost straight on to the head of Bramble. His header crossed the line before Gael Clichy managed to boot it back out again. "I keep my opinion for myself," Arsene Wenger said. "I believe you cannot say today we lost the game because of the goalkeeper."

Minus Manuel Almunia, absent with a wrist injury, Arsenal again provided fuel for the argument that a great, or at least a very good, goalkeeper is required to win the Premier League. A superior standard of second-string centre back is, too: while Sol Campbell's was another valiant effort in a losing cause, Mikael Silvestre illustrated why Sir Alex Ferguson was willing to sell him. In added time, he was dispossessed by Hugo Rodallega. The Colombian found N'Zogbia, whose shot was whipped into the far corner with force.

It was fitting, though, that Ben Watson began the comeback. Brought back after a loan spell at West Brom, the midfielder's first league start of the season came against the club he supported. He could have won a penalty, when Samir Nasri tugged him back. He could earlier scored, too, with a low shot after Victor Moses found him, and then again, with a header that was cleared off the line.

"The first goal was very important and we were not in the right position," Wenger added. "I never thought the game was over because I saw we were in difficulties to keep the ball, to create other chances. When you do not create chances, you are in trouble. I always felt we could be punished. We were not focused and not disciplined and were caught."

It amounted to an uncomfortable afternoon for Wenger. As is his wont, he removed his jacket in frustration, flinging it to the turf. As tends to be the case at the DW Stadium, he was mocked by the Wigan fans, spreading their arms wide open as they imitated the Frenchman's repeated appeals to the referee.

The five minutes either side of the interval should have brought satisfaction. First Theo Walcott accepted Nicklas Bendtner's pass to evade Bramble and Maynor Figueroa before prodding a shot past Chris Kirkland. Then the otherwise errant Silvestre headed in Nasri's corner.

At which point, as Wenger himself admitted, they were back in contention at the summit of the division, only to promptly remove themselves from it. Theirs has been a strange challenge. Arsenal have displayed a capacity to veer in and out of the title race, sometimes due to their own powers of recovery and sometimes because of others' failings. On this occasion, their own shortcomings accounted for their eventual exit.

A shortage of players contributed, too. Wenger's selection may have only included four of his first-choice side; apart from the sidelined, their returning hope arrived too late. With the benefit of hindsight, delaying the Robin van Persie's introduction behind those of Fran Merida and Emmanuel Eboue backfired.

Arsenal joined Chelsea and Liverpool on Wigan's list of scalps. "Without a doubt, that was the best of the lot," Roberto Martinez said. "We have beaten our weakness, which is accepting disappointment and reacting in the right manner. We have folded many times and we have been through very painful lessons this season. Today, to be able to come back from 2-0 down, it just shows you we learned from our experiences."

Next season will provide the test for Arsenal: have they learned from theirs?

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ben Watson Martinez has rarely given the impression he rated Watson, one of Steve Bruce's final signings, but that could change. His was a determined display as he exerted an influence in each department.

WIGAN VERDICT: It was a remarkable response in the final 15 minutes. While Martinez insisted they need another win, this should keep them in the top-flight for another year. With players of the calibre of N'Zogbia and Rodallega, they ought to be there. But their ability to beat three of the Big Four also highlights the inconsistency that has blighted their season.

ARSENAL VERDICT: There has been character in abundance over the last couple of months, but this was a capitulation. The squad was stretched too thinly, which underlined the need for reinforcements, with a central defender and a striker of particular use, although there is certainly a case for giving Campbell an extended deal. For Fabianski, the birthday is also a milestone: at 25, can he really be regarded as a young player anymore? While knee-jerk reactions should often be avoided, Arsenal fans hankering for Hugo Lloris or Joe Hart have a point.

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