Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Arsenal battles back to top of the table

GAUNTLET A sweet Thierry Henry strike handed all three points to the Gunners, but with Chelsea also grabbing a late equalizer, it's still anybody's title

REUTERS , LONDON

Manchester City's Claudio Reyna, right, tackles Arsenal's Ray Parlour during their English premier league soccer match at Arsenal's Highbury ground in north London on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Arsenal returned to the top of the premier league with a hard-fought 2-1 home win over Manchester City on Sunday as Chelsea kept up the pressure on the leaders with a 3-2 victory at Blackburn Rovers.

An own goal by City defender Michael Tarnat and a sumptuous late strike by Thierry Henry left Arsenal two points ahead of Manchester United, with Chelsea just four points further back in third place following Glen Johnson's spectacular winner.

Arsenal dominated a rain-swept match at Highbury and broke the deadlock after 39 minutes when Henry's teasing cross was turned in from close range by Tarnat, under pressure from Freddie Ljungberg.

City, without a victory in 12 premier league games and lying 15th in the table, defended bravely but rarely threatened Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann.

Arsenal's new Spanish striker Jose Antonio Reyes made his debut as a 70th-minute substitute following his ?17 million (US$30.79 million) transfer from Sevilla.

He almost had an immediate impact but his goal-bound effort was well smothered by City keeper David James before Henry clinched victory five minutes from time with a curling a shot into the top corner of the net from the edge of the penalty area.

City's French striker Nicolas Anelka pulled a goal back in the dying seconds but was immediately sent off against his former club following an altercation with Ashley Cole as he tried to retrieve the ball from the Arsenal defender.

"It was a tough game because you don't expect Manchester City to play like that, very focused on the defensive side of their game," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told Sky Sports after watching his team extend their unbeaten run in the premier league this season to 23 games.

"I am very happy to win what was a very physical match," the Frenchman added.

Chelsea looked to have been denied a deserved victory when Blackburn substitute Paul Gallagher equalized with three minutes remaining, only for Johnson to lash an unstoppable half-volley into the roof of the net from the edge of the penalty area.

"It was very important for us to win today to keep up with Arsenal and Manchester United," Chelsea coach Claudio Ranieri told Sky Sports. "We worked very hard but we must learn to finish matches off."

Blackburn took the lead after only three minutes at Ewood Park when midfielder Garry Flitcroft neatly volleyed the ball into the net from close range.

Chelsea, with ?10 million (US$18.11 million) midfielder Scott Parker making his debut, levelled on 25 minutes, Frank Lampard running on to a cutback from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink before steering the ball in off the far post from eight meters.

England midfielder Lampard was on target again 10 minutes before the interval, receiving a pinpoint pass from Frenchman Emmanuel Petit and planting a low shot past helpless goalkeeper Brad Friedel.

Blackburn equalized against the run of play when Gallagher turned the ball in at the far post from a tight angle but Johnson's late strike left Rovers 16th in the table, just three points above the relegation zone.

Manchester United had returned to winning ways with a hard-fought 3-2 home victory over Southampton on Saturday. French striker Louis Saha was the third high-profile debutant of the weekend for the title-chasing clubs, scoring his first goal for the champions with a deflected free kick.

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