February is here and Arsenal await their first Premier League win of 2012. This will be the year Arsène Wenger's proud record of 14 consecutive seasons in the Champions League goes no further unless his team rediscover the ruthlessness, luck and belief that has eluded them so far. And do so fast.
A five-point gap on Chelsea is not insurmountable with 15 games remaining and as Robin van Persie orchestrated chances almost at will in a dominant, swaggering opening, the style that has kept Arsenal company with the European elite for more than a decade, though it has not satisfied the lust for silverware for seven years, looked certain to sweep aside Bolton Wanderers. They ended the night with a familiar refrain of wasted chances, hearts in the mouths when Mark Davies had an 87th minute penalty appeal denied by referee Chris Foy and their manager issuing the eternal rallying-cry of the troubled. "For us, every game in the championship is a cup final now," said Wenger.
It is within Arsenal to stage a concerted recovery but, in the meantime, five points from their past six league games has handed initiative to their rivals for fourth place and increased exasperation among their own support. Not that Wenger's faith has been fatally undermined. "Of course I am confident of a top-four finish," the Arsenal manager added. "There is a long way to go. We have come through a difficult period. We lost three league games but could have won them as well.
"We are confident but I believe we have to produce our form game by game. We go into a period now playing in the FA Cup, playing in the championship and the Champions League and, combined, those three will be difficult. It is important we don't have any more injuries."
Both sides showed a healthy desire for victory until the moment to score arrived, and there were plenty of them in an entertaining but goalless affair. Van Persie did everything except overtake Dennis Bergkamp on the list of Arsenal's all-time goalscorers and a late Eric Cantona-like chip that sailed on to the crossbar would have been a worthy way to pass his compatriot. Theo Walcott wasted a one-on-one with Adam Bogdan in the Bolton goal and David Ngog had two fine openings to enhance the recent revival from Coyle's team.
Arsenal also risked a fourth consecutive league defeat with minutes remaining when Per Mertesacker pulled at Mark Davies as the impressive midfielder darted into the area and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny dived at his feet but clipped the ball. "The second challenge from the goalkeeper was a good challenge and I thought the first was just outside the box from Mertesacker," said the Bolton manager who, having raged at Foy from the touchline when the referee waved play on, showed the benefits of studying the replays before passing comment.
The visitors arrived in the icy north without winning in the league since beating Queens Park Rangers on New Years Day and could have corrected that fault before Bolton had mustered their first attack. Arsenal created five openings in the first 16 minutes that contained common characteristics: Van Persie was integral to each one; they were all convertible and not one found the net. Wenger's team showed intent and incisiveness from the start and Van Persie was first to threaten when Thomas Vermaelen picked out his captain with a deep cross to the far post. Van Persie steered an awkward headed chance back across Bogdan but David Wheater was conveniently placed on the line to hook clear.
Seconds later Aaron Ramsey and Van Persie combined to dissect Bolton with a wonderful one-two and the Wales international was at full stretch as he prodded the return straight at the goalkeeper. Walcott teed up Arsenal's leading scorer for a low shot from 12 yards that struck a defender, Van Persie exchanged passes with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and looked on aghast as the winger sent his effort high and wide with half of the Bolton goal exposed. The architect of all Arsenal's early dominance also drove just over when Laurent Koscielny broke from defence and found the striker lurking on the edge of the area. Wenger said: "I feel what was missing tonight was to take our chances early in the game, that would have changed the whole game. They would have had to come out. They defended very well and as long as we didn't score they weren't in a position where they had to change their tactics."
The one-way flow shocked Coyle and a frustrated Bolton crowd and, despite the teams' relative positions in the table, well it might. Bolton have struggled all season but had won three successive home games prior to Arsenal's arrival and the manner in which they despatched Liverpool in their last league outing suggested a more resilient, cutting response than this. It came belatedly as Ngog easily held off Koscielny to test Szczesny from a difficult angle and then wasted a glorious chance when, from Wheater's exquisite flick over the Arsenal defence, he held off his marker only to volley inches wide.
Bolton finished the game far stronger, a consequence of Arsenal's comeback in the FA Cup against Aston Villa on Sunday, according to Wenger, but Bacary Sagna, on his first league start since breaking a leg four months ago, almost created a breakthrough for Van Persie. The Dutchman's near-post volley struck a post, he then chipped against the bar with Bogdan beaten and Arsenal then withstood a late aerial siege to take a point. The jubilation that greeted the final whistle was not reflected in the away end of The Reebok.