West Brom 2-3 Arsenal: Fulop the joys of spring

Match reportVideoBy the numbers

It was the 92nd minute of the game when Arsene Wenger, as fraught with nerves as I’ve ever seen him, clung to Pat Rice as a Robin van Persie chance went begging.

I think we all knew how he felt.  I’d have tried to cuddle Pat too if I were there. It was tense. One goal for West Brom would mean finishing 4th as Sp*rs were leading Fulham 2-0. We were sitting deeper and deeper and struggling to hold onto the ball whenever we did get it. We boffed it long, they’d come back at us, and when it opened up for the Baggies just after that van Persie chance, I thought we were done. Genuinely.

I could see the ball nestle in the far corner, a late repeat of what happened against Norwich, and with it our hearts broken again and our summer made complicated. Just as the West Brom player was about to shoot though, in slid Kieran Gibbs. It had be timed perfectly. Too late and it’s a goal, a little early and he might have given away a penalty. Thankfully, the timing was spot on and he produced one of the finest match-saving blocks I can remember. There were still 3 nail-biting minutes left but I think that moment it was sealed it for us.

And it had started so well. Yossi Benayoun had put us into an early lead when Marton Fulop, making his West Brom debut, dallied over a back pass. Instead of booting it clear he waited for it to come into the area and tried to pick it up. Benayoun’s reward for chasing him down was a tap-in on what’s likely to be his last game for the club. An early Benayoun goal, what could go wrong?

It was, in terms of scoreline at least, a repeat of Norwich. First the home side equalised when Shane Long was not given offside and he went clean through to shoot past Szczesny. The keeper went mad, Arsene went mad, and replays showed he was well and truly offside. I don’t think it’s fair to criticise us defensively for the first goal, although Szczesny might have done better, but for the second the gap between Koscielny and Vermaelen was criminal. Quite why the Belgian was that far up the pitch is anybody’s guess and when Dorrans beat Koscielny to the ball Vermaelen was nowhere as he fired a shot into the bottom corner.

So, 2-1 down, West Brom energised by our flakiness and defensive and it all felt a bit familiar. The script was being written but it was being written by Adam Sandler. Thankfully, Adam Sandler was also playing in goal for West Brom yesterday and when Andre Santos nicked the ball in midfield and lashed a shot from 25 yards, his touch could only help the ball into the back of the net to bring us level. A fine piece of play by the Brazilian but the keeper hardly covered himself in glory.

Ten minutes into the second half it became a hat-trick of Fulop assists when he came for a corner, tried to punch it clear when he could have caught it, and under pressure from his own man punched it back towards goal where Laurent Koscielny poked it home to make it 3-2.

I imagine I’m not alone in thinking another goal would be necessary, the idea of us hanging on for the best part of half an hour plus injury time didn’t seem reasonable to me. In a season full of drama, I was dreading us contributing to it further and it got hairy at times. West Brom had a sequence of about three hundred corners in a row, Szczesny was forced to make a good save from Andrews, Fortuné had the beating of Jenkinson who was a bit too grabby and shirt-pully for my liking, and with just one goal being so crucial it meant hearts were in mouths across Goonerdom.

Fast forward to Arsene clinging to Pat Rice, Gibbs making the block, and somehow being made play 5 minutes of injury time in a game with no injuries and just a few subs. Where the ref got that time from I will never know but for that reason alone I wish him pestilence and plague. Or at least a dodgy chicken sandwich. They had some throws, and a free kick, we boffed it down the pitch again until finally the final whistle went. Arsenal finish third, Sp*rs finish 4th, we get Champions League football no matter what happens in the final and they have to look on with fear, for all kinds of reasons. Happy St Totteringham’s Day, and Benayoun played a part again.

Afterwards, Arsene said:

I am still thinking of suing the referee for the five minutes of added time because my heart suffered immensely!

And of the season as a whole:

In the end we finished with 70 points, which is respectable, and we qualify for the Champions League for the 15th consecutive year. Of course we are very proud of that, especially this season having started where we started.

And today, we ought to enjoy that ‘achievement’ because it is one. It’s not a trophy, I know, but considering the mess we were in at the start of the season, and the bad spell in January, finishing in third is pretty remarkable. When we were 10 points behind Sp*rs in February, when they were 2-0 up at our place, it seemed far from sure that we could end up where we did, and although we ended up crawling over the line right at the death, we did enough to get where we needed to get.

The qualification for the Champions League is vital. We all know why. It means we have a stronger position with which to negotiate with van Persie, and others whose contracts are at that point. It means we can attract the calibre of player we need to improve us, and it means that the financial side of things doesn’t take a massive hit due to the loss of the Champions League revenue. Let’s enjoy that today.

However, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think this is a season that anybody will look back on with great fondness. Yes, the clawing back of the points on that lot will always be a chucklesome memory, but beyond that we can only hope that the mistakes we’ve made are never repeated. The shambolic start to the season must be a blueprint of how not to do things in the future and we know that the squad needs to be replenished and made more efficient.

There’s plenty of time this summer to discuss the intricacies of that but let’s hope that this time next year we’re talking about a team that has properly challenged. As I’ve always said, I can live without trophies if I feel we’ve done as much as we can, as a club, as a playing staff, to try and win. There was too much politics last summer, too little cohesion and that was apparent throughout as we struggled to maintain any kind of consistency. So, while we can be happy that we’ve finished third for all the reasons above, let’s not be blind to the fact that there’s a lot of work to do over the summer.

To be perfectly honest, I’m quite glad to see the back of this season. It can go and sodomise itself with a rusty spoon as far as I’m concerned. We can use the summer to recharge our batteries, take stock of where we are, and then make plans to improve. In the end there was a 20 point gap between us and the champions, and we need to work on closing that.

Still, for today I’m quite happy. The league table doesn’t lie and if we’re in third position it’s because we deserve it. We’ve had some dark times this season but some good ones too. There are plenty of positives, plenty of things we can build on, and let’s not forget that our joy is exacerbated by Sp*rs choking on their own misery. Balance of power shifting my hole.

Goodbye 2011-12, roll on next season.

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