West Bromwich Albion 2 Arsenal 3
It being the final weekend of a rollercoaster season, a good number of 25 of us decided a boozy weekend in England`s second city was in order to see out 2011-12 in style. Though given that I clambered to my hotel bed at just after 4am because I could no longer string a sentence together, perhaps "style" is too finessed a term. But style was certainly the order of the next day as we had also, in our wisdom, decided to return to an old tradition of fancy dress for the last game of the season.
Nursing our hangover pints in the Square Peg in the centre of Birmingham in the company of Vincent Vega, B.A. Baracus, Terry Tibbs, Alan Partridge and, errr, a duck, was pretty surreal. (In case you`re wondering, I elected for my costume choice to go as Pat Rice. Cones in hand, transition lenses and shorts allowing the gentle summer breeze to snake up my leg). You can view the photos on my twitter page. In any case, after a drink and a bit of a sing song, it was all aboard for the Hawthorns. (After I`d conducted a vigorous warm up on the train platform of course).
Our task was one of "chilling simplicity" as a legendary commentator once termed it. Trouble is, simplicity isn`t something one associates this Arsenal side with. Lord Lowe next to me faithfully had his ear pressed to a radio and when he leant over to inform me Spurs had gone one up after just two minutes, we knew nobody was going to do us any favours. (Though Martin Jol`s pre match comments were a decent indicator that the jovial Dutchman fancied having his belly tickled by his ex employers). Inside four minutes it looked to be no matter in any case. Marton Fulop, deputising for Ben Foster, tried to allow a ball to roll gently back towards him in the area. In an apt microcosm of his season with us, Benayoun gamely chased the lost cause, nicked the ball from the hapless Estonian keeper and rolled the ball into an empty net.
A gift greatly received and a nice farewell from the Israeli. Arsenal finishing 3rd for the sake of next season doesn`t make much difference to Benayoun. That didn`t stop him absolutely running his danglies off for the cause. He was our man of the match by quite a distance and I`ll be sad to see him go. But the Baggies were soon on level terms via some very generous officiating. Morrison hooked a ball through the middle of the pitch, Shane Long was an absolute bus ride offside, but somehow the assistant didn`t detect it. The ex Reading striker was in no mood to look a gift horse in the mouth and gratefully powered the ball past Szczesny.
The goal ruffled Arsenal`s feathers and nerves began to take them over. As ever, there was a touch of lunacy as the home side moved into the lead. Morrison played another relatively straight forward ball through the middle. Vermaelen had, once again, pushed too far up the pitch, allowing the ball to sail over is head. Koscielny tried faithfully to cover, as he has been doing for Vermaelen rather a lot of late, but he couldn`t make it. Graham Dorrans made no mistake. With Spurs leading, it looked as though Arsenal weren`t going to hold their nerve.
However, a tactical instruction from the manager, together with a more steadied performance, turned the game in our favour. Wenger spoke with Rosicky on the sideline during a stoppage in play. He asked the Czech to tell Santos to play slightly more in field. West Brom were playing very centrally and hardly using their width at all. It may have been a defensively motivated instruction, but it paid immediate offensive dividends. Santos, as he does so often, intercepted a stray Jonas Olsson pass and quick as a flash, unleashed a low shot from outside the area, which Fulop could only help into the net. A draw was still not enough, but you had the feeling that Arsenal finally had control of the situation at half time. Rosicky felt his hamstring and went off, Walcott, who had just recovered from a hamstring injury, came on in his place. Arsenal needed to push for a winner and Santos came close when he threw a beguiling stepover and then sent a swerving shot just wide of the top corner.
There was a mood of generosity from both sides and nobody was in a more giving mood than West Brom`s ex Spurs keeper. Van Persie swung in a corner from the right, Fulop came. I recall initially being perplexed that he was opting to punch for what was an easy catch. That he did and messed it up so spectacularly benefitted the nearby Laurent Koscielny, who simply notched the ball into the empty net. Another very deserving goalscorer based on his season`s work. I`d rather hoped we would push for a fourth goal to settle the issue, but, perhaps understandably, the team backed off a little and invited the home side onto them. It made for a nervy last few minutes, which I think aged much of the 3,000 travelling contingent a good few years.
But West Brom didn`t really create an awful lot of concrete opportunities. Substitute Keith Andrews stung the palms of Szczesny from range. In stoppage time, Billy Jones received a pass from Odemwingie and, for all the world, was one on one with Szczesny. He set himself to shoot, but was blocked by a superb sliding block from Kieran Gibbs. I`ve seen it described since as "the £45m tackle." Too right. But the Gunners held on and celebrations broke out in the Smethwick End. "Tottenham, mind the gap, Tottenham, Tottenham mind the gap" rang around the West Midlands afternoon. The players came over to greet the away support, captain van Persie ran into the dressing room to retrieve Pat Rice and give him the send off he deserved in front of us.
The benefits of finishing 3rd are many and obvious so I won`t rehash them. It is a superb recovery to finish there in the league when one takes account of our start. But that start in itself shouldn`t be considered as anything other than self inflicted. It was an avoidable scenario and hopefully lessons have been learned which will stand us in good stead for the summer. We have players to retain, a few to shift and a couple to buy and with our Champions League spot secured, we need to attend to that business as quickly as possible. But the recriminations are for another day. I`ll review the season in full with a series of articles over the coming week or so. Bt for now, thank you for reading this season. I look forward to the first match report in August. LD.
WEST BROM: 13.FULOP, 28.JONES, 4.McAULEY, 3.J.OLSSON©, 6.RIDGEWELL, 17.DORRANS (33.Scharner `80), 7.MORRISON (8.Andrews `52), 21.MULUMBU, 31.COX (24.Odemwingie `74), 9.LONG, 33.FORTUNE. Unused: 19.Daniels, 24.Shorey, 25.Dawson, 26.Hurst.
ARSENAL: 13.SZCZESNY, 25.JENKINSON, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 11.A.SANTOS (16.Ramsey `80), 17.SONG, 39.COQUELIN, 7.ROSICKY (14.Walcott H/T), 27.GERVINHO (28.Gibbs `67), 30.BENAYOUN, 10.v.PERSIE ©. Unused: 15.Chamberlain, 20.Djourou, 21.Fabianski, 29.Chamakh.
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