Gunners' title challenge hits the wall

Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic and now Middlesbrough have secured draws against Arsenal and a five-point advantage at the top has disappeared, writes Dominic Fifield.

Arsenal's title challenge has reached breaking point. The numbed silence that engulfed the home dressing room after the latest setback reflected a side deflated, exhausted and, critically, overhauled. Players shuffled in their seats, staring blankly at the floor. Blood, which had seeped from the gash suffered by Gael Clichy, stained the showers as if to speak of a wounded team. "It was like a defeat," conceded Arsene Wenger. "It is the flattest I've seen them after a game."

The Frenchman later reflected that the mood at Birmingham City, scene of Eduardo da Silva's horrific fracture and the stoppage time penalty which started this slump, had been comparably grim. Since then Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic and now Middlesbrough have secured draws against Arsenal and a five-point advantage at the top has disappeared. The squad feels stretched, energy and invention having drained from their approach. This side is joint-top yet, judging by the sense of anticlimax, their season � domestically at least � appears to have turned.

The manager, like his players, seems perplexed at the sudden shift. Frustration left Wenger monotone and haggard in his post-match briefing, conducted in a soundproof room deep in the bowels of the Emirates even if the Frenchman seemed incapable of raising his voice. Middlesbrough had been wonderfully organised, stifling from front to back as they suffocated Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini in the centre, but that, as Wenger conceded, was "nothing revolutionary."

Arsenal are confronted by such tactics on a weekly basis these days, yet they appear to have regressed to last season's deficiencies. This was predictable: a bright opening, a sloppy concession, a build-up of tension and a late reward which maintains hope of a kind. Kolo Toure leapt to nod them level four minutes from time, the ball creeping in off Andrew Taylor and Mark Schwarzer on the goal-line. "There is no obvious reason (for the slump), apart from the fact that we dropped two unbelievable points at Birmingham and that has maybe had consequences on our league form," said the manager. "We gave absolutely everything but there was a little fraction less of belief. We have Chelsea next and maybe that's a good opportunity not to put too much pressure on ourselves and to show how good we are against a good side."

Arsenal had seen this coming. William Gallas had taken his team-mates to one side in the build-up to Boro's visit and warned them that the goalless stalemate at Wigan had been a legacy of the startling win at San Siro against Milan a few days earlier. "The difference was in the head," he had said. "It's difficult to find the same level of motivation for the following game. Time is running out this season."

There were times when Arsenal players appeared stumped on the edge of the Boro penalty area, confronted as they were by frantically committed defenders. Schwarzer's save from Fabregas, slipped in by an otherwise anonymous Alexander Hleb, prompted wails of exasperation. Emmanuel Eboue and Fabregas clipped the woodwork. Emmanuel Adebayor had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside, George Boateng having inadvertently presented him with the ball. This was deja vu to drive the locals to distraction.

Yet there was much that was of Arsenal's own making. They were sloppy in conceding the goal, which left them chasing the contest, Schwarzer's punt collected by a galloping Tuncay Sanli to square for Jeremie Aliadiere to guide in a fine finish against his former club. Toure called it a "silly" goal. Where Arsenal revel in a lead, streaking forward to wreck opponents on the break, they are easily flustered in arrears. The advantage encuraged Boro to scrap and gave them something more substantial to cling to. They were unrecognisable from the disjointed mess who had succumbed to Cardiff City in the FA Cup. Gareth Southgate's afternoon was tarnished only by Mido's dismissal for the high boot that inflicted Clichy's cut. Boro will not be appealing against the decision but remain hopeful that Mark Halsey might reconsider when he submits his report, given that the Egyptian appeared unaware of the full-back's presence. "It will be an incredible blow if he receives three games for that," said Southgate. Yet this was a day on which blows were inflicted. Arsenal are gasping for breath.

The Results

March 16: Fulham 1 (McBride 67) bt Everton 0. Half-time: 0-0; Manchester City 2 (Ireland 59, Onuoha 72) bt Tottenham 1 (Keane 32). Half-time: 0-1; Wigan 1 (Heskey 34) bt Bolton 0. Half-time: 1-0.

March 15: Arsenal 1 (Toure 86) drew with Middlesbrough 1 (Aliadiere 25). Half-time: 0-1; Derby 0 lost to Manchester United 1 (Ronaldo 76). Half-time: 0-0; Liverpool 2 (Mascherano 19, Torres 48) bt Reading 1 (Matejovsky 5). Half-time: 1-1; Portsmouth 2 (Defoe 11, Reo-Coker o.g.-38) bt Aston Villa 0. Half-time: 2-0; Sunderland 0 lost to Chelsea 1 (Terry 10). Half-time: 0-1; West Ham 2 (Ashton 39, Sears 81) bt Blackburn 1 (Santa Cruz 19). Half-time: 1-1.

March 12: Aston Villa 1 (Barry pen-74) drew with Middlesbrough 1 (Downing 23). Half-time: 0-1; Chelsea 6 (Lampard pen-28, 57, 66 & 72, Kalou 42, J. Cole 64) bt Derby 1 (Jones 73). Half-time: 2-0; Portsmouth 4 (Defoe pen-6 & 9, Hreidarsson 49, Kanu 90) bt Birmingham 2 (Muamba 10, Larsson 40). Half-time: 2-2.