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Boasts amid blunders

On an afternoon when his crumbling season so nearly fell off the rails once and for all, Arsene Wenger chose his moment to proclaim the most unpredictable title race in years is destined to finish with his Arsenal side being crowned champions.

The 'In Arsene We Trust' movement will join their hero in claiming this 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns was a triumph for Arsenal's battling qualities in a month when their bid for a Quadruple has collapsed, yet even the most loyal followers of the legendary Gunners boss must question the motives behind his lavish boasts on a day when the flaws in his side were exposed for the umpteenth time.

With howling defensive errors undermining Arsenal's attempts to emerge from their recent slump, the two late goals that staved off another defeat merely papered over the cracks in an increasingly desperate title charge.

However, Wenger told the gathered media at The Hawthorns that his side were on the brink of becoming kings of English football, even though they fell five points behind title favourites Manchester United after this draw.

"We will win our game in hand and beat United, which will be enough to make us champions," Wenger defiantly boasted on a day when his side conceded another sloppy goal from a corner and saw the latest calamity 'keeper moment from Manuel Almunia leave them in danger of what may have been a fatal defeat.

While Wenger had every right to laud his side's dramatic late fightback thanks to goals from Andrei Arshavin and Robin van Persie, the truth was they looked like a side whose bolt had been shot for the first 70 minutes of this game against lowly West Brom.

However, the excuses continue to flow from the Arsenal boss as he did all he could to deflect attention away from a team who are clearly running out of steam at a crucial stage of the season once again.

"The pitch was difficult for us to play on in this game," Wenger said by way of explanation for this latest disappointment. "Also, we were far too tentative, too nervous in the opening period of the match. Clearly what has happened to us in the last few weeks was playing on our mind in this game.

"Still, I feel we showed great spirit and commitment to get back into this game and when you are 2-0 down away from home with 20 minutes to go, a point has to be viewed as a good result.

"This performance proves we are ready to battle and we are up for this fight and, even though big the mistakes we made to get ourselves into a difficult position today were disappointing, this is not a moment for personal criticism. It was our fault we conceded both goals, but we found a way to get a good point in the end."

It's hard to believe a defence that is so desperately inept when defending set-plays has a realistic chance of winning the Premier League and West Brom needed just three minutes to expose Arsenal's weakest link once again, as Chris Brunt's floated cross was headed home by an unmarked Reid. Aaron Ramsey was the guilty man as he lost his man in the box at a crucial moment.

Accusatory finger-pointing from defenders was complemented with arm-waving from 'keeper Almunia, yet the lack of a leader at the heart of Wenger's defence had been exposed and the remaining 87 minutes of this game suddenly had the potential to decide the futures of more than a few high-profile Arsenal stars.

The response Wenger would have expected from his players would not materialise before the break, so his move to replace the persistently ineffective Denilson with Marouane Chamakh at the break confirmed he appreciated the scale of his crisis. The roar that greeted the departure of the Brazilian from the travelling Arsenal supporters confirmed that they believe he has long outstayed his welcome in this team.

Yet disaster was just around the corner for Arsenal as after 58 minutes, a long punt upfield inspired keeper Manuel Almunia to rush from his goal and collide with defensive partner Sebastien Squillaci.

If this was not a team challenging for one of the biggest prizes in world football, the comedy scene created by Arsenal's No. 1 would have been humorous, but Wenger did not see the funny side as Peter Odemwingie fired his shot into the unguarded goal to double the Baggies' lead.

The Arsenal boss threw a water bottle in disgust as his side had attempted suicide a second time and, at that point, it was hard to see how a side lacking inspiration and drive would find a way back into the game.

That was before a stunning strike from Arshavin and a fortunate leveller from Van Persie gave Arsenal a point the West Brom manager felt they deserved.

"We played against one of the very best teams in the Premier League today, so collecting a point was a fine effort," Roy Hodgson said. "This is certainly a point gained for us and, while we were given some help by Arsenal in the two goals we scored, that performance was close to the maximum my players can provide."

Those who witnessed Arsenal's efforts at The Hawthorns will confirm it was the display of a side who appear to be wallowing in their own self pity after going out of three cup competitions in quick succession.

These players seem unable to recover from a setback and respond in the right manner and that looks certain to deny them their final shot at glory in this troubled season.

Wenger's confident boasts after this game may well have been designed to convince his players that they will shed their defeatist mentality in time to enter the winner's circle come May, but you have to wonder whether even the persistently optimistic Frenchman seriously believes their moment of glory is a matter of weeks away.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Reid. The Albion midfielder showed some classy touches and outshone many of the star names around him.

WEST BROM VERDICT: This was a gutsy effort from Hodgson's men and, while the two goals they scored were gifts from Arsenal, their energy levels remained high throughout. Time will tell whether they have enough class to stay in the Premier League.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Just for once, Arsenal struggled to produce the brilliant flowing football that seems to compensate fans who claim the entertainment they get from their team is more important than trophies. Even though this point may be useful in the title race, the Gunners didn't look like champions in the making at the Hawthorns.

EXCUSE CULTURE: Footballers will hide behind any excuse offered to them when they fail and Wenger may be guilty of providing his players with another get out after this latest below par showing. The Arsenal boss blamed the Hawthorns pitch for his latest setback, but the reality is the fragile nature of his players was a bigger issue.


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