The tone of the match changed entirely a minute before the break when a long ball forward from West Ham saw Thomas Vermaelen and Guillermo Franco get into a chase with each other. Franco went down under the slightest contact and the linesman flagged for a penalty. The referee, who was quite a way behind play, backed his assistant, awarded the spot-kick and gave the Arsenal defender a red card as the last man.
Seen live in the stadium, it looked a soft decision. Having viewed the replay back at home, it was a disgrace. The contact, which hardly looked like an intentional effort to impede the attacking player, was minimal and outside the area. On another day, Franco might have been booked for diving. Then red card was also questionable as the West Ham striker did not have the ball under control, so it was couldn't be deemed a clear goalscoring opportunity. It was a harsh call on all counts and Arsene Wenger had every right to be furious with the referee when the teams trooped off at half-time.
As it was, justice was done when Almunia saved Diamanti’s spot-kick. If Nicklas Bendtner’s injury-time goal at Hull last weekend was potentially one of those moments that might prod Arsenal’s season in the right direction, then the Spaniard’s penalty-save might be another. With so little margin for error in their remaining matches, it really did feel like Arsenal might be looking down the barrel when the referee brandished the red card but once Almunia beat away the spot-kick the stadium reverberated with vindication and belief.
It took the Gunners a little while to reorganise in the second half and West Ham were afforded a period of possession but, once the home team found their feet, they didn’t just survive the remainder of the match, they dominated it. At no time did Arsenal ever look to try to sit back and defend their one-goal-lead. Instead they carried on playing their usual attacking game and pushed forward. West Ham simply couldn’t get close enough or build enough momentum to force an equaliser. The closest they came was when a Carlton Cole shot rapped the outside of the post. Aside from that, they rarely troubled the Almunia’s goal.
With Vermaelen sent back to the dressing room, Alex Song was obliged to drop back into the centre of defence to partner Sol Campbell. The Cameroon international was magnificent all afternoon and deserves being singled out for praise. During the first half, he imposed himself in midfield and broke up countless amounts of West Ham possession. In the second period playing as centre-back, he showed concentration and made several crucial tackles and interceptions. He and Campbell managed the West Ham threat capably and with the minimum of fuss.
Emmanuel Eboue also contributed another noteworthy performance. He started at right-back and was moved up to the right side of midfield when Bacery Sagna came on. From both positions, he was a constant irritation to West Ham as he linked up with the attack and his boundless energy was emblematic of the spirit that the whole team showed in the second half.
It was fantastic to see Cesc Fabregas back in action and he showed no ill-effects from his hamstring injury. As always, he led by example and it was fitting that he should be the one to make sure of the three points by converting an 82nd minute penalty after Matthew Upson had handled in the area.
So, once again, Arsenal refused to be denied and summoned the spirit to win the match. It is a feat they will have to try to emulate in every one of their remaining games as they wait in hope for Manchester United and Chelsea to drop points. With their title rivals playing today, it is unlikely that the Gunners will be top of the table by the end of Sunday. However, climbing to the summit yesterday afternoon showed that they still definitely have something to say in the race to win the Premier League.
The other big talking point of the week was the Champions League draw which saw Arsenal get paired with Barcelona. What a fantastic tie that is going to be. Some might argue that it would have been better to avoid the Catalonians but I tend to think that this Arsenal team are more likely to raise their game playing as underdogs against a team like Barca than if they had been drawn against CSKA Moscow or Bordeaux. These are the sort of games you live for as a supporter.
The Barcelona team are loaded with stars and are worthy European Champions but the Arsenal players - and supporters - must not be too reverential towards them. Also, as marvellous as it will be to possibly see Thierry Henry back in North London, this must not be a distraction either. The Gunners will have to be at their absolute best to get through both legs of this tie will need to show the sort of spirit they have conjured up in recent weeks but, playing against another team that also wants to play attacking football, they do have a chance.
The first leg is only ten days away and the anticipation is already massive. Apart from anything else the Gunners have a few scores to settle with Barcelona - revenge for the 2006 final, Barcelona’s constant attempts to poach Arsenal players and, in particular, the on-going speculation about Cesc Fabregas moving there in the summer. It is going be a colossal encounter and I, for one, cannot wait.