BLACKBURN // Arsene Wenger struck a relieved yet confident tone after his Arsenal side banished their Ewood Park ghosts with a gutsy performance worthy of potential Premier League champions. The Frenchman saw the Gunners' title aspirations ended by Blackburn Rovers last campaign, but goals from Theo Walcott and Andrey Arshavin gave his side a hard-fought 2-1 victory yesterday to leave Wenger in no doubt that his side should be taken seriously this season.
The striker Robin van Persie limped off with a twisted ankle on 35 minutes on his first start of the campaign but Wenger expects the Dutchman to be fit in two weeks. Wenger conceded his side were nervous in the first 45 minutes about coping with Blackburn's physical approach but believes the resilience they showed to take maximum points will send a warning to their rivals. "Maybe we were a bit too nervous dealing with the game of Blackburn in the first half because we had bad memories here last year," he said. "We know the kind of game we don't like and we didn't have enough confidence to deal with that.
"In the second half we were a bit calmer and it was a question of time. We had the right resilience and commitment but if you don't score the third goal you don't know. "If you have ambition to win this league you have to win at Blackburn because if you fail to win at clubs like this your ambition will not be respected by other teams. It was an important test to us." Walcott sent Arsenal on their way to victory with a clinical, 20th-minute strike from Van Persie's through ball as he impressed once again in front of the watching England manager Fabio Capello.
Mame Biram Diouf, on loan from Manchester United, equalised seven minutes later. After an entertaining and even first half, Arsenal stamped their authority on the clash. Walcott, who scored three goals against Blackpool last weekend, was a constant danger. He had an inadvertent hand in Arshavin's 51st-minute winner, diverting Cesc Fabregas's strike into the path of the Russian, who coolly steered the ball home.
"Last week Theo was much more on the ball and much more dominant but you have games where you do have less opportunities but he was still dangerous." Wenger said. "He was still sharp and had the clinical finish. "You judge a player by the numbers, by the goals he scores and the assists and his numbers are very, very good. It looks like he is more confident and has moved forward." Fabregas and Van Persie made their first starts of the season for Arsenal, at the expense of Jack Wilshere and Maroune Chamakh, who had to settle for a spot on the substitutes bench.
For Rovers, Diouf kept his place in the side after a hat trick in the Carling Cup victory over Norwich in midweek. Vince Grella was also handed his first Premier League start of the campaign. Sam Allardyce's team were fortunate not to be behind within four minutes as Abou Diaby's 18-yard goal-bound volley hit Grella on the line, cannoned off the goalkeeper Paul Robinson and was then hacked clear by Grella.
Walcott's brilliance soon changed the Ewood Park mood though as, put through by Van Persie's slide-rule pass, he drove a low strike across Robinson and into the corner of the net for the opener. The match was level seven minutes later though as the two Diouf's combined. El-Hadji Diouf brushed off a weak challenge from Laurent Koscielny on the left and Mame Biram Diouf was on hand to tap home his clever pull-back.
The decisive goal was set up by a pass from Bacary Sagna to Fabregas, whose shot struck Walcott and fell to Arshavin, who scored from an angle. In a desperate gambit, Allardyce put giant centre-back Samba up front for the last 10 minutes, to no avail. Said Allardyce: "We should have had our noses in front at half time but because we didn't take those opportunities we paid the price. "The game was in the balance but they scored next and the finishing was top-quality."