Albion Reflections: A Bridge Just Far Enough
West Bromwich Albion 2 – 3 Arsenal
0 – 1 Benayoun (4)
1 – 1 Long (11)
2 – 1 Dorrans (15)
2 – 2 Santos (30)
2 – 3 Koscielny (54)
“A night of chilling simplicity”
Brian Moore’s words prefacing kick-off at Anfield on 26th May 1989 echoed down the years; Arsenal had to win to be sure of Champions League football next season. That win achieved, there is no anxious wait on the outcome next Saturday in Bavaria; no looking at the TV schedules to work out which Thursday night series you will need to set to record. Third place and the attendant benefit had been achieved.
Other more recent memories echoed in this match; last Saturday for example. An early Yossi Benayoun goal cancelled out with opponents turning the scoreline around quickly. This time Arsenal responded, finding an equaliser before half-time, taking a decisive lead early in the second.
Achieving their aim the hard way is de rigeur for the modern Arsenal. Some things never change.
West Brom were in the mood for a party to celebrate Roy Hodgson’s departure; a rare thing for football supporters to be happy a manager is leaving without the subtext of “good riddance” anywhere to be seen. Arsenal punctured that atmosphere in the fourth minute. Possession appeared to be wasted once more with an aimless pass comfortably into the Albion defence; Fulop came to meet as defenders shephereded the ball into his path. Benayoun had other ideas, his predatory instincts coming to the fore as the goalkeeper dithered before the Israeli robbed him of possession and slotted home.
The perfect start required a period of calm, the sting taken from the game. Within ten minutes, the game had been turned on its head. Standards of officiating this season have been criticised to a level never before heard; yesterday’s matches did little to quell that noise. Chris Foy seemed to believe he was in 1950 when he allowed a shoulder charge on the Bolton goalkeeper whilst the offside rule obviously does not apply in the West Midlands; no time for these new-fangled footballing laws here. It beggared belief that an official level with play did not see that Long was two yards offside; that is not a small margin, that is six feet. Nearly a body length.
Five minutes later Albion had the lead as Dorrans fired home following a Morison pass again. Arsenal were on the backfoot when they needed to be controlling the game. If there is one thing that the squad possesses, it is determination. Too many deficits have been recovered or obstacles overcome for this trait to be easily dismissed.
Arsenal gained their composure and set about retrieving the situation. A lot of possesssion with Rosicky pivotal but there was little end product until Santos let fly from the edge of the area, Fulop’s touch not strong enough to divert the ball to safety. Arsenal were level with an hour remaining.
The pendulum had swung once more towards Arsenal with tension building through Tottenham’s lead. Not that the players would have been aware in that moment, simply relieved to be level. The half peetered out with both sides creating little of note and ceding possession all too readily.
Ten minutes into the second half and Arsenal were in front. Just over a year ago, Laurent Koscielny bore the brunt of criticism for his part in the Arsenal downfall at Wembley. His strength of character has shone through this season and that may be a lesson Marton Fulop can learn. The Albion custodian’s nightmare became complete as he bundled into his own player and misguided his clearing punch from van Persie’s corner into the path of Koscielny who gratefully slammed the ball home. 3 – 2; destiny calling once more.
At which point Arsenal shut up shop and coasted through the final half an hour to secure their Champions League spot for the fifteenth consecutive season.
That’s what I’d like to write but it was not that simple. Albion pressed but created little. Andrews brought a good save from Szczesny before Kieran Gibbs produced an astonishing block as Jones seemed likely to score. Arsène betrayed the tension, clasping Pat Rice’s arm and convulsing in anguish; his Irish deputy was altogether more stoical and not a little bit uncomfortable in the emotional display.
The moment encapsulated the tension that bound the afternoon.
It was a match of highly charged emotions. The players displayed a genuine affection for Pat Rice post-match whilst the manager summed up the non-story of Robin van Persie’s celebration by confirming the words of his captain; they sit down with Ivan Gazidis this week to work it all out. That though is the story of another day; today is to unwind, relax and enjoy third place.