Gunners outclass West Brom
London - Nicklas Bendtner breathed new life into Arsenal's hopes of securing a top-four finish in the English Premier League as he inspired a 3-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday.
The Danish striker has been the target of ferocious criticism by sections of the north Londoners' support this season but played his way back into their affections with two first-half goals to take his season's tally to 11.
Albion had briefly threatened an upset when Chris Brunt's free-kick cancelled out the first of them, but after they gifted Kolo Toure an easy second goal, their hopes all but evaporated.
Their chances of remaining in the top flight could go the same way unless they somehow instil some resilience into their flowing football.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's own concerns, meanwhile, are now not so acute.
Fourth-placed Aston Villa's advantage over his team is down to three points, although that could be extended to six when they travel to Manchester City on Wednesday, and this was undoubtedly a more purposeful performance, even if it did come against the Premier League's worst defence.
Indeed, his only regret on a generally pleasing night was an injury to Toure, which prevented his captain emerging for the second-half.
No side in English top flight history had ever recorded five consecutive goalless draws but Arsenal were 90 minutes away from achieving just that before this game.
In the event, Wenger should not have been concerned. This West Brom defence specialises in resuscitating flat-lining forwards and Arsenal won at a canter, even though their best player - Robin van Persie - remained on the bench.
Instead, Wenger paired Bendtner with the diminutive Andrei Arshavin, and to spectacular effect.
The game was only into its fourth minute when Samir Nasri's corner was partially cleared to Denilson and the Brazilian slipped a pass to Bendtner, who cut inside Ryan Donk and curled his shot into the bottom corner.
The relief among Arsenal's travelling throng was palpable but no sooner had their side jettisoned one bad habit - profligacy in front of goal - than they rekindled another by leaking an eminently avoidable goal.
After Johan Djourou had clumsily fouled Luke Moore on the edge of the area, Brunt stepped up and drove a low, left-footed free-kick which skidded underneath Emmanuel Eboue's raised boot and past goalkeeper Manuel Almunia's outstretched hand.
Moore duly tested Almunia again with a snap-shot at the near post, but that was as good as it got for West Brom. Instead, their limp defence capitulated meekly in the dying moments of the first-half.
First, in the 38th minute, Gianni Zuiverloon allowed Arshavin's inswinging free-kick to sail over his head, with Toure nodding past Carson with contemptuous ease; then, in the 44th, Abdoulaye Meite failed to cut out Toure's long ball and Bendtner, hardly believing his luck, crunched home on the angle.
The scoreline might have acquired an embarrassing hue in the second-half, only for Carson to set up a one-man blockade.
The England goalkeeper twice denied the lively Arshavin with exceptional saves from close range, although he could only join his defenders in watching as Bendtner ran 20 yards, drifting past tackle after tackle, before shooting against the left-hand post.
Albion might have set up a grandstand finish when Marc-Antoine Fortune broke clear but dragged well wide with only Almunia to beat, a moment which summed up manager Tony Mowbray's evening.