Comic Fulop gifts Gunners third spot
WEST BROM 2
In 2006, a famously dodgy lasagna was suspected to have poisoned the Tottenham squad thus helping Arsenal clinch Champions League football.
On Sunday, it was a dodgy keeper who was decisive in ensuring that Arsenal again finished above their north London rivals and guaranteed their participation in Europe’s elite club competition for a 15th consecutive season. Unforeseen outside influences were certainly again at work.
For if Ben Foster, the West Brom goalkeeper, had not aggravated a groin injury during training on Saturday, it is impossible to imagine how Arsenal could have won this match.
Marton Fulop, Foster’s replacement, froze on what was his first Premier League appearance for two years and was at fault for all three Arsenal goals. In the first and third, he provided serious contenders for blunder of the season.
It was a suitably confusing ending to the most testing and tumultuous season in Arsène Wenger’s 16 years as Arsenal manager.
The bottom line, though, is that the 2011-12 campaign must now be considered a success for Arsenal and a personal triumph for Wenger.
His team, after all, had their core ripped away at the beginning of the season but have somehow recovered from 15th in October to a final position of third.
Despite a wobble over this final furlong, Wenger admitted that even he had been surprised by the transformation. “I’m proud of the season,” he said.
“We didn’t show any weakness and kept united. It’s a good lesson for everyone. Only three clubs in Europe have qualified for the Champions League over the last 15 years which shows it is not easy.”
The key now, of course, is to ensure that the momentum is accelerated going into next season. Arsenal have already signed Lukas Podolski but their summer is likely to be defined by the success of contract talks with Robin van Persie, their captain.
Van Persie led Arsenal’s celebrations here when Pat Rice, their retiring assistant manager, was lifted shoulder high by the players in front of the travelling supporters.
Yet it also seemed significant that Van Persie should return, alone, to wave to the Arsenal fans. Contract talks will be held before he departs for Holland’s Euro 2012 training camp on Thursday. “Whatever happens I’ll always love this club,” Van Persie said.
Wenger was encouraged by Van Persie’s post-match gesture. “If the player doesn’t go out to see the fans, you say he has gone,” Wenger said. “If he goes out and stays with the fans it’s as if he is saying goodbye. I believe it is a positive sign.”
While Van Persie’s future will be one of the big stories of the summer, one person definitely saying goodbye yesterday was Roy Hodgson.
Despite defeat, he had led West Bromwich Albion into a top-10 finish and it was clear that he departed for Euro 2012 with the very best wishes from West Brom fans.
Had it not been for Fulop, who was later described as “devastated” by assistant head coach Keith Downing, Hodgson would also have left with a win.
Fulop’s first mistake arrived after just four minutes. James Morrison had reacted quickly to dispossess Van Persie just inside the West Brom half, with the ball appearing to cannon harmlessly towards the edge of the penalty area.
Yet rather than kick the ball to safety, Fulop inexplicably hesitated and tried to wait until he could use his hands.
Yossi Benyaoun sensed the panic and was just quick enough to get his foot to the ball and then roll it into an empty net. West Brom’s reaction underlined their determination.
As Morrison drove forward, both Laurent Koscielny and Andre Santos were pulled out of position. Shane Long exploited the space and, with Arsenal appealing for offside, he latched on to Morrison’s precise pass and shot confidently past Wojciech Szczesny.
Arsenal’s defence were similarly negligent in allowing West Brom to take the lead four minutes later. Morrison played a hopeful pass forward towards Graeme Dorrans, who headed the ball into space and then produced a wonderful finish past Szczesny.
Wenger looked furious but his team did then find something approaching their usual passing fluency. Santos was eventually rewarded for constantly gambling in pressing forward and fired a precise shot just inside Fulop’s near-post.
With Tottenham winning against Fulham, Arsenal knew they must press forward in search of a winner and, ultimately, their season hinged on a large slice of luck.
Van Persie had swung a corner into the middle of the penalty area but, rather than catch the ball, Fulop tried to punch to safety. His positioning, once again, was misjudged and his attempted clearance was somehow skewed back towards his own goal and volleyed into an empty net by Koscielny.
It set up a nerve-jangling finish, with Van Persie making a goal-line clearance from Jonas Olsson, Szczesny saving acrobatically from Keith Andrews and Kieran Gibbs making a wonderful tackle in injury-time to deny Billy Jones.
As the final whistled sounded, the prolonged embrace between Wenger and Rice told a story of joy and, above all, relief. “I’m thinking of suing the referee for the five minutes extra time because my heart suffered too much,” Wenger joked.