Bendtner heroics the latest surprise in Arsenal's unlikely title charge
LONDON -- Perhaps now Arsenal has to be taken seriously as a title contender.
Arsene Wenger had been scathing earlier in the week of the "experts" who said his side lacked the squad to maintain their challenge, but after an 11th win in 13 league matches, it stands four points clear of the pack and, notably, 12 points clear of the champions Manchester United. A 2-0 victory over Hull City may have been little more than a procession, and is unlikely to live long in the memory, but it was significant in as much as it was achieved while resting a number of players.
Of all the doubts about Arsenal's championship credentials, the biggest had been what might happen if Olivier Giroud were to be injured. There has been talk of another striker arriving in January -- although Wenger this week denied rumors of an interest in the former Brazil international Pato, now at Corinthians -- but against Hull City came a glimpse of what might happen if Arsenal doesn't invest and Giroud is unavailable.
On this occasion the decision to start with Nicklas Bendtner was voluntary, taken with Sunday's game against Everton, Wednesday's Champions League fixture away to Napoli and the following Saturday's game at Manchester City in mind, and it was against an acquiescent Hull side, but it suggested the alternative might not be that bad.
"It is always a gamble with a guy who has not played for a long time," said Wenger. "His last performance - against Chelsea [in the Capital One Cup] - was not convincing but he worked hard in training and deserved a chance. We know when his mind is on the game he has the quality and tonight he had a good game. He has the touch, has good technical quality."
That has always been the issue: the raw materials are there, as he seems to show far more often for Denmark than for his club side, but there always seems to be something preventing him producing his top form on a regular basis.
"We had him as a boy of 15, 16," Wenger said, "and I made him sign a long contract twice which shows I believe in his qualities."
Bendtner is a footballer whose reputation for ludicrousness goes before him. If he hadn't made such grandiose comments about his own ability, he would probably be regarded as a reasonable enough player; and he has hardly helped his reputation with a series of public order offenses, from criminal damage to drunk driving.
Then there was the time when, unable to find cash to pay for his food in a Copenhagen pizzeria, he asked whether they knew who he was, then pointed out he could buy the whole restaurant if he felt like it, let alone a pizza. Some of the more vitriolic derision may be unfair, but Bendtner has not made himself sympathetic.
That, though, does not make him a bad footballer. Neither does one goal make him a good one, but the way he found space after 93 seconds, dropping back as Carl Jenkinson chipped the ball into the middle, and then guided a neat header past Allan McGregor, was at least a reminder that he is not the klutz many make him out to be. Then again, his miss after 14 minutes, his heavy touch as Mesut Ozil's shot bounced back off McGregor sending the ball scooting out of play when he essentially had half the goal to aim at, suggested he remains capable of the comically disappointing. Yet even that incident seemed to sum up the Bendtner conundrum.
Realistically, it wasn't that easy a chance, the ball cannoning sharply and unpredictably off McGregor. Yet because this was Bendtner, with his obtrusive pony-tail, archly languid manner and feet that always seem slightly too big for his body -- just as Kanu's, which actually were massive, always looked far smaller than they really were -- the miss looked dreadful.
Even leaving that side, though, there was plenty in Bendtner's performance to admire. He had a header cleared off the line by Robbie Brady. He set up a glorious chance for Ozil on the stroke of halftime, making a run outside across the line of Santi Cazorla's break, creating space, then received the pass and crossed first time, only for the ball to skid off the forehead of the German. And generally he led the line, if not quite with the incisiveness of Giroud, then certainly with application and intelligence. When he was withdrawn for Theo Walcott after 73 minutes, it was to a standing ovation.
In part, of course, that is a reflection of the feel-good factor around Arsenal. When results are good, fans are looking for heroes rather than for scapegoats. Bendtner may not be a hero yet, but at least he has showed that if called upon to play a role this season, he can do so; and that, symbolically at least, is very good news for Arsenal.