Arsenal hit three past sorry 10-man Wolverhampton Wanderers

At a time when the battle for Champions League qualification is becoming increasingly tense, Arsenal could not have wished for a more comfortable night to strengthen their grip on third place in the Premier League. Arsène Wenger's side recorded a ninth league victory in 10 matches to open up a five-point gap over their nearest rivals, Tottenham and Newcastle, and push Wolverhampton Wanderers ever closer to relegation in the process.

Wolves, to their credit, never surrendered, although the odds were stacked against them from the moment that Sébastien Bassong was sent off in the eighth minute for a professional foul on Theo Walcott. Robin van Persie duly scored from the penalty spot with an outrageous chip to register his 27th Premier League goal of the season, and his first in five matches, to put Arsenal on their way to a straightforward win that makes them clear favourites to secure the third automatic Champions League place.

Walcott added a second two minutes later, after smartly combining with Van Persie, and Yossi Benayoun scored the third midway through the second half to underline their superiority. With none of the chasing pack playing in the Premier League over the weekend and Arsenal facing Wigan at home on Monday, Wenger's side have the chance to extend their lead over Spurs and Newcastle to eight points and also open up a 10-point gap on sixth-placed Chelsea.

As well as expressing his satisfaction with his team's position, Wenger singled out Van Persie for special praise after the Dutchman scored another landmark goal. "I think he has equalled the record of Ian Wright [in 1996-97]. He has scored against 17 different teams in the Premier League That's absolutely remarkable in the modern game to do that, so I would like to congratulate him. It's something sensational," the Arsenal manager said.

Fulham and Manchester City are the only two teams that have kept Van Persie quiet this season, which was something Wolves never looked like doing from the moment that Bassong departed.

The defender, on loan from Spurs, was caught the wrong side of Walcott after the winger exchanged passes with Van Persie, and bundled into the back of the Arsenal forward as he bore down on goal. Neil Swarbrick, the referee, had little option but to apply the letter of the law and show the red card as well as point to the spot, even if Wenger sympathised with Wolves.

"I think the rules look a bit harsh, that you get the penalty against you and lose a man as well," he said.

The Wolves manager Terry Connor responded by withdrawing the midfielder David Davis and replacing him with Christophe Berra, an orthodox central defender, which seemed like a perfectly logical decision in the circumstances, yet vitriol rained down from the stands. "You don't know what you're doing," chanted those in the South Bank followed by: "That's why we're going down."

Connor was unsurprisingly unimpressed. "Before we played Blackburn [last month], 99% of the crowd would not have known David Davis — it was me who gave him a chance," he said. "I must admit I didn't really appreciate that reaction from the crowd. After that, they gave tremendous support. I just wished they could have done that for 90 minutes."

Although Walcott's goal, coolly dispatched inside Wayne Hennessey's near post in the 11th minute, after another slick interchange with Van Persie, effectively put the game to bed, Wolves battled on and went close when Wojciech Szczesny made a superb one-handed save to deny Kevin Doyle in the second half.

The Arsenal keeper also parried an effort from Nenad Milijas in the closing stages, although by that point Benayoun had drilled home a third to leave Wolves nine points adrift offrom safety with five matches remaining. "If the lads play with the heart, spirit and determination they did tonight, I can't ask any more," said Connor.

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