Arsenal run continues with victory against Wolves
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0 Arsenal 3: Only Arsenal's haste and the speed of Wolverhampton Wanderers' latest nosedive caused surprise. That the visitors condemned the division's hopelessly adrift bottom team to a ninth consecutive home defeat was utterly predictable.
With help they probably didn't need in the form of a man advantage, Arsène Wenger's side secured a ninth victory in 10 league matches, a fourth clean sheet in five and established a five-point cushion in third place in the race for Champions League qualification. No help here for the chasing pack of Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Chelsea, then, however unexpected it would have been.
The game was effectively over after eight minutes, with Arsenal's supporters rejoicing both in the sending-off of Wolves' on-loan Spurs centre-half Sebastien Bassong and a goal.
Theo Walcott played a one-two with Robin van Persie and raced into the area, where he was floored from behind by a tangle of feet and a nudge. The penalty award looked justified and Neil Swarbrick, deeming Bassong to be the last man, ordered him off.
"Excessive punishment" was the Wolves manager Terry Connor's view. "A bit harsh but they're the rules," Wenger reasoned, his eyebrows having been raised by how Van Persie dinked the cheekiest of kicks down the middle.
The goal meant Wolves have now gone 30 league games without keeping a clean sheet – ammunition enough for Richard Stearman to retrieve the ball from the net and boot it towards the posse of celebrating Arsenal players near the corner flag.
It also created a slice of Arsenal history, as disclosed by their manager. "Robin has equalled the record of Ian Wright by scoring against 17 different teams out of 19 in a season (the odd ones out are Fulham and Manchester City). That is absolutely remarkable in the modern game and I'd like to congratulate him. It's something sensational."
Wolves fans, their perceived feeling of injustice heightened by memories of Nenad Milijas's red card at the Emirates over Christmas and that of Karl Henry at the same venue two seasons ago, saw their side breached again barely 90 seconds after the breakthrough. Walcott once more exchanged a one-two with Van Persie and advanced at pace before this time driving in firm and low at the near post.
Two goals adrift and a man down in 10 minutes: last season's meeting here, in which Wolves fell behind in 38 seconds, certainly looked highly promising by comparison.
Remarkably, Wayne Hennessey's goalmouth was barely threatened for the rest of the half and Christophe Berra, introduced early as a damage-limitation exercise, even saw a header deflected wide by an Arsenal defence unable to call on Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs. "We played a bit with the handbrake on after the strong start," Wenger said.
Van Persie, having ended a four-match barren run that was his worst spell this season, might have added to his 38-goal season tally for club and country. But he settled instead for dispossessing Milijas in the 69th minute, finding Alex Song and seeing Yossi Benayoun crack right-footed past the static Hennessey from his fellow midfielder's pass.
Only a brave save at close quarters by Hennessey from Aaron Ramsey denied Arsenal a fourth goal following the Dutchman's pull-back but Wolves played with enormous heart in pursuit of morsels, backed throughout by a healthy helping of gallows humour from Molineux's South Bank.
Wolves have now taken one point out of 24 under Connor's leadership. They now effectively stand 10 points short of 17th place and are going down with a right thump.
For Arsenal, the horizons are vastly different but Wenger is taking nothing for granted. "We still have to be very focused," he said. Obviously, someone had reminded him the next game is against Wigan Athletic.
Man of match Walcott.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee N Swarbrick (Lancs).