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ARSENAL 2 - SAINTS 2
STEVE WIGLEY has always believed there would be light at the end of the tunnel.
But just as it threatened to blaze through in the most emphatic possible fashion, Arsenal's Robin van Persie cruelly flicked the switch.
Yet the disappointment of conceding a memorable victory with virtually the final kick of the game need not significantly dim the achievement of Saints' 2-2 draw at Highbury.
After all, which Saints fan wouldn't have settled for a point prior to Saturday?
You had to go back to 1987 for the last victory at the home of The Gunners. In more recent times Arsenal have lost just once in 50 league games, while Saints were waiting for their first win since August.
This season, after only ten games, the defending champions were some 19 points clear of Saints having scored 23 more goals.
On paper, there was only one result. On the grass of Highbury, however, every possible outcome looked likely at different stages of a game containing more twists and turns than an Alpine descent.
A fairly quiet opening quarter had seen Arsenal prod and probe to little effect with their conductor Thierry Henry looking most dangerous.
But it was Saints who provided the igniting spark.
Danny Higginbotham, in for the injured Jelle van Damme (ankle) at left-back, sent over a deep, sweeping cross.
It looked fairly innocuous until Mikael Nilsson swung his right boot at it to sweetly power the ball past Jens Lehmann, yet agonisingly off the inside of the post.
Saints, defending with great discipline in their two banks of four, were matching Arsenal when Dennis Bergkamp broke into the penalty area some ten minutes later.
He flicked the ball clear of Kenton and was upended.
A soft penalty? Maybe, but there could be little argument as referee Matt Messias pointed to the spot.
This time, it was Arsenal's turn to be denied by inches as Thierry Henry's penalty flew off the inside of the post having beaten Antti Niemi.
Saints, though, needed to rely on their Finnish goalkeeper twice before the interval to keep out efforts from Jose Antonio Reyes and Henry.
Yet while Arsenal always looked threatening, Wigley's men were playing with a composure and quality allied to their customary workrate and effort.
The key was a midfield four that finally appeared to click.
Paul Telfer had replaced David Prutton alongside Rory Delap in the centre and played the anchor role to perfection.
Rarely straying from his position in front of the back four, the Scot shielded his defence and distributed the ball simply and effectively.
It gave Saints a balance and shape they have not always found ever since Matt Oakley limped from St Mary's after his knee injury against Middlesbrough more than a year ago.
But you cannot relax for a second against Arsenal and it appeared Saints had paid the ultimate price midway through the second-half.
Bergkamp lofted the ball clear to Henry, who appeared to be several yards offside. The flag stayed down and the Frenchman side-footed past Niemi.
As Saints protested, replays showed that Higginbotham had just played his opponent on.
The predictable pre-match outcome now looked a certainty. Yet a string of decisive moments were to turn the match upside down.
Wigley replaced Ormerod for Neil McCann in attack. Then Niemi made a breathtaking point-blank save from Freddie Ljungberg after Henry's superb break down the left.
The ball was cleared and McCann battled away to win a corner. His inch-perfect cross was met by Delap who powered a header past Lehmann.
The travelling Saints fans were in raptures. Moments later they were in ecstasy.
Once again, a good save from Niemi seemed to inspire his team-mates.
He blocked Robert Pires' shot immediately before Nilsson won a free-kick wide on the right deep in Arsenal territory.
McCann crossed and Delap again lost his marker and headed beyond Lehmann.
It looked for all the world like a fairytale finish.
Wigley has had his share of bad-luck since he became head coach back in August, but the footballing gods seemed to have ruled he would earn his first victory at the most unlikely of destinations.
On the touchline, Wigley briefly looked just as stunned as the rest of Highbury. And it could even have been 3-1 when Kenton galloped clear, stayed on his feet despite a nudge from Pascal Cygan, but just couldn't apply the finishing touch.
With only two minutes stoppage time, there was an argument referee Messias should already have blown the whistle for full-time as Arsenal now pounded forward.
Yet with just seconds remaining, substitute Van Persie cut in from the right onto his left and fired past Niemi's out-stretched hand for 2-2.
Although Arsenal hadn't really deserved to lose, it was heart-breaking stuff for Saints.
Yet in the cold light of day, there was clearly much from Saturday's drama to feel good about.
Yes, victory would have eased some of the pressure ahead of the match against West Brom next week.
But a draw at Highbury must be seen as a bonus.
To really make it count, Saints must now follow it up with a decent November points haul, particularly from the matches at St Mary's.
Still, after Arsenal's Battle of the Buffet last week, it was nice to be talking about a feast of football.