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Sep 24, 2011

Wenger still faces work in progress

The Arsenal players owed beleaguered boss Arsene Wenger a performance after their lamentable start to the season and it belatedly arrived against Bolton.

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Robin van Persie's 99th and 100th goals for the club, along with a late clincher from Alex Song, saw off ten-man Bolton at Emirates Stadium and while the performance of Wenger's team was still a long way short of what will be required to achieve anything other than mediocrity this season, the three points collected provided the under-fire manager with some much needed breathing space.

Contemplating the end of Wenger's historic reign as Arsenal boss has proved to be a desperate and increasingly more probable prospect for supporters whose love for this particular manager is ingrained in the psyche as well as the soul.

Yet if Bolton had left victorious before Tottenham plunged a dagger deep into Wenger's heart next weekend, the final loyal devotees standing behind the manager would have been forced to accept his time was up.

Seeing off a Bolton side lacking defensive talisman Gary Cahill and reduced to ten men after David Wheater's 55th minute red card can hardly be hailed as redemption for a team and a manager who presided over an 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford last month and a 4-3 loss at Ewood Park last weekend, but at least it was a start.

The passing fluidity of old was still missing, while their long-term determination to miss clear cut chances and inability to defend against set-plays were still in evidence, yet Wenger chose this moment to lash out at his critics in the media with a feisty post-match press conference performance.

"You have been consistently trying to get me out and I am consistent in saying I want to stay at Arsenal," said an agitated and ashen faced Wenger, clearly riled that his former allies in the media have turned against him in his hour of need.

"This was an important victory for the team and not for me, so let's focus on what is important here. We cannot afford to drop too many more points from this point on and a 3-0 win has to be a good start in that ambition. We controlled this game and I never felt Bolton would hurt us in the second half."

It was unusually strong stuff from a manager who did little to banish the notion that he was losing his mind with some bizarre programme notes that were the talk of the press room earlier in the afrernoon.

There has always been something of the philosopher about Wenger, but it seemed as if some of his priorities may have become a little blurred, as he claimed his job of becoming some kind of football humanitarian was more important than the success of his Arsenal team.

"Arsenal has now fielded players of 49 different nationalities," wrote Wenger, his pride dripping off the glossy page. "This is why Arsenal has become a worldwide club admired everywhere. The values of the club are open minded and down to pure sporting qualities. It's highly important in the modern world that football can be ahead of society and contribute to a better world tomorrow. Long may this progress continue."

The men in white coats may well have been hovering next to him as he dreamed up that dose of philosophical nonsense and only 90 seconds of this game had been played when the gasps around the ground were inspired by deep rooted concern once again.

A free-kick 40 yards from goal is only a crisis when the Arsenal defence are lining up to face it and after a long ball was pumped into the box, Darren Pratley was allowed a free effort on goal that was kept out by a flying save from Wojciech Szczesny. The fans were as nervous as Wenger's players.

At half-time, there was little evidence that Arsenal were about to turn the corner and the disgruntled faithful seemed reluctant to return for more agony at the start of the second half. That meant Robin Van Persie fired his side into a lead in front of half-filled stands and many had still not returned by the time Wheater was sent off for a tug on Theo Walcott as he raced in on goal.

Those two incidents decided the game, with Bolton boss Owen Coyle accepting his side made it too easy for Arsenal in the second half. "We gave them all the encouragement they needed by giving away a poor goal and once you go down to ten men at this place, you are always going to be in trouble," he moaned. "We have to dust ourselves down as it won't get any easier for us next week against Chelsea."

A late clincher from Song sealed Arsenal's triumph and inspired Wenger to brandish the biggest smile he has displayed all season as he celebrated with assistant Pat Rice on the bench, with relief as much as joy warming his heart.

The cries of 'There's Only One Arsene Wenger' echoed around the stadium as his loyal subjects again showed that there is nothing this manager can do to lose their support and with the sun breaking through the clouds at the Emirates, Arsenal's darkest start to a season in a couple of generations suddenly seemed to be temporarily forgotten.

However, sterner tests lie ahead and until Arsenal banish the suspicion that they lack the defensive steel and creative class to beat the best, the rattled Wenger will remain caught in the glare of blinding spotlights.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin van Persie - The Arsenal skipper delivered the goods when his manager needed it most. His ongoing determination to waste every free-kick around the penalty area remains an annoyance, but he cannot be faulted on a day when he good his Gunners goals tally reached the century mark.

WALCOTT INJURY: Wenger confirmed that Theo Walcott picked up a worrying knee injury in the latter stages of this game and he will have a scan to assess the damage, but it is not thought to be serious.

BOLTON VERDICT: With a little more ambition, they could have upset Arsenal as they stumbled through a dire first half, but they faded all too willingly after the break. Bolton missed the presence of the sick Gary Cahill at the back.

ARSENAL VERDICT: The away trip to in-form Tottenham will give Wenger a chance to re-establish his authority. However, another heavy defeat may be too much for some of his wavering disciples to accept.

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