LONDON (AFP) — Arsene Wenger admitted a serious injury to Alexander Hleb had stripped the gloss from Arsenal's 1-0 victory at West Ham.
The Belarussian international was stretchered off mid-way through the first half at Upton Park after being felled by a crude, shin-high lunge from Mark Noble.
The referee Alan Wiley awarded just a yellow card to the West Ham midfielder, a decision that triggered angry remonstrations from Wenger on the touchline.
His fury had barely abated when he addressed the media in his post-match press conference and, while he stopped short of accusing Noble of deliberately attempting to hurt his opponent, Wenger suggested that the collision was not entirely accidental.
"It looked very nasty, although I haven't seen it again on the replays," he said. "If it was an accident, it is a very bad accident, because if you see his [Hleb's] leg it is unbelievable.
"It is red and bruised from the knee down to the toes. We are quite optimistic because Noble is usually a fair player. I don't know if it was an accident or not, but he caught him very well."
Hleb left Upton Park on crutches and has been ruled out of Tuesday's Champions League encounter with Steaua Bucharest, although speculation last night that he had suffered a broken leg proved unfounded.
Alan Curbishley, the West Ham manager, claimed not to have seen Noble's challenge, although he did suggest Arsenal's Mathieu Flamini had been guilty of an equally reckless first-half challenge on Scott Parker.
The former Newcastle midfielder failed to re-appear for the second half, with Curbishley confirming that he had aggravated a long-standing knee injury.
Wenger's mood may have been soured by Hleb's injury, but this was still an immensely satisfying afternoon for his talented young side.
A first victory in four attempts over their east London rivals maintained Arsenal's position at the head of the English Premier League and stretched their unbeaten run this season to an impressive 11 matches.
Their latest success was sealed by Robin van Persie's well-taken 13th-minute goal, the Dutchman nodding in at the far post after Hleb had crossed from the right.
Arsenal should have built on that advantage in the second half, but Robert Green, the West Ham goalkeeper, made a string of fine saves to deny Emmanuel Adebayor, twice, and van Persie.
"We had a bit of apprehension because we lost here last season and this was a big test," Wenger added. "We started with the handbrake on but the goal helped. We didn't make the same mistake we made at Blackburn: we continued to play and move forward and try and score the second goal.
"Unfortunately we didn't get that but we deserved it. There's room for improvement but I am very proud of what the team is achieving at the moment.
"We are very young but we have to show we can eke out results. We did that today and I think that shows the team is maturing tactically."
West Ham could have snatched an equaliser, first when Dean Ashton headed straight at Manuel Almunia and then when Freddie Ljungberg, playing against his old club for the first time, saw a goal incorrectly chalked off for offside, but a point would have been generous reward for a laboured performance.
Defeat, however, was the least of Curbishley's concerns. In addition to Parker's injury, the manager saw his centre-half Anton Ferdinand limp off with a hamstring strain, while Craig Bellamy is still struggling to recover from a troublesome groin injury.
"It's been this way ever since I have been at the club and we'll just have to cope with it," he said. "But I've said to the lads that they worked as hard as they could.
"We're disappointed we couldn't get back in it: if we had, it would have been anyone's match."
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