Arshavin calmed Arsenal’s nerves at the Emirates today with a late clincher which secured a 3-1 win over a stubborn Birmingham City and more benefit in the title race on a day that league leaders Chelsea were beaten.
Despite finally recovering from a mysterious chest infection, Manuel Almunia was kept on the bench at the expense of inspirational youngster Vito Mannone while Eboue, Gibbs and Walcott were started to hand some rest to the likes of Sagna, Clichy and Arshavin.
But the rarest of those starters – Theo Walcott – was thwarted early on by Ridgewell’s aggressive tackle. He would seek extended treatment and eventually be replaced by Arshavin after 33 minutes.
The home side should have taken the lead when Diaby’s left-wing cross was knocked back by Van Persie at the far post, but Rosicky got his timing all wrong and failed to make a decent contact. Walcott – while struggling to stay on – then picked up the ball on the right, side-stepped his tackler Ridgewell, before his cross was tipped over by Joe Hart.
But there was little the visitors’ resistant goalkeeper could do on 16 minutes.
Alex Song collected possession 25 yards out, and slipped a lovely low pass through the left side of the penalty area. Van Persie took the ball on his right, then switched back inside past Stephen Carr before drilling it into the far corner.
And before Birmingham could recover, it was 2-0.
Eboue put Rosicky clear down the right channel, and his cut-back from the near post went all the way through to Diaby – who smashed a first-time effort into the roof of the net. Arsenal were now in cruise control, but to their credit, Birmingham maintained some tempo.
Song bundled over James McFadden to concede a free-kick in a decent position for the visitors, some 25 yards out. Larsson, who left Arsenal in January 2007, struck his effort well as it beat the wall, but Mannone got down quickly to make the save.
Arsenal were made to pay for a lapse in concentration as Birmingham pulled a goal back after 38 minutes. Barry Ferguson sent a deep cross into the penalty area, which Diaby flicked back up in the air.
Mannone, under pressure from Larsson, came to collect, but dropped the ball – which Bowyer smashed into the net. Arsenal quickly looked to restore their two-goal cushion, and Hart saved well down at the right-hand post to deny Arshavin.
Birmingham, clearly boosted by their goal, had an early chance at the start of the second half when the ball flashed across the Arsenal six-yard box. At the other end, Arshavin stabbed a close-range effort wide after Diaby’s low center.
Larsson was, at full stretch, penalized for what referee Lee Probert deemed a somewhat harsh back pass, giving Arsenal an indirect free-kick eight yards out. Fabregas rolled the ball to Arshavin, who stopped it for van Persie, but the Dutchman’s fierce effort skimmed off the top of the crossbar.
As the hour passed, Arsenal maintained the pressure, but despite all of their decent approach play, failed to find a telling pass. It could have proved costly as Mannone made a brave take as Ridgewell’s pass went through the Arsenal six-yard box, which would only have needed a touch for the visitors to equalize.
Arshavin, however, settled matters with five minutes left when he slotted home from just inside the penalty area after a quick counter attack.