Saturday 24 February 2018

Podolski double lays down gauntlet to Everton

Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1

Arsenal's French striker Olivier Giroud (2-L) shoots to score a goal
Arsenal's French striker Olivier Giroud (2-L) shoots to score a goal
Arsenal's players congratulate each other after the final whistle
Olivier Giroud of Arsenal shoots past Adrian of West Ham United (13) to score their second goal
Tomas Rosicky of Arsenal evades Mark Noble and Pablo Armero of West Ham United
Matthew Jarvis of West Ham United (7) heads the ball past Wojciech Szczesny of Arsenal to score their first goal

Sam Wallace at the Emirates

ARSENAL looked disaster in the eye and, for the second time in four days, decided to postpone their engagement for a little longer.

This was a game that Arsenal could not afford to lose and yet West Ham United took the lead late on in the first half.

Defeat here would have been untenable, just as it would have been on Saturday at Wembley, and Arsenal's senior players seemed to sense this.

At the start, the team were stalled in first gear, as they have been for weeks, but two goals from Lukas Podolski and one piece of brilliance from Olivier Giroud dragged them over the line and back into fourth place.

Arsenal might well be past the point of playing well again this season. They have just four league games left now, and then the FA Cup final, and are quite clearly operating within what Arsène Wenger himself would call "the red zone," down to their very last reserves of players, energy and ideas.

Last night they had both specialist left-backs injured, as well as Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott.

Mathieu Flamini, the only genuine holding player, was suspended.

They might not be able to produce much fast or fluent football, but Wenger's side simply have to dig in, to use their experience and to show the character their manager always says that they have.

Arsenal just had to find a way to win this match, to make sure they kept pace with Everton in the race for fourth place. That is what they did and while Everton can overtake them again this evening when they host Crystal Palace, Arsenal are certainly still in the hunt. It was not clear for the whole evening that they would be.

There have not been many recent games between these two sides which West Ham United began with more youth and pace than Arsenal, but so it was last night at the Emirates.

SURPRISE

With Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain worn out by their efforts at Wembley on Saturday, Arsenal's youngest outfield player was Giroud, 27 years old and not exactly sprightly in the last few months.

So, it was not much surprise that Arsenal started the game just as they have their last few: slow, timid and unimaginative. The spark, clearly, has gone from their game, worn out by another tiring year that seems set to end not much better than the last one.

The thousands of empty red seats were their own testament to this same feeling, that this might be the whimpering end not just to the season, but to a whole era at Arsenal.

It was West Ham United, playing under far less pressure, who were more threatening over the opening exchanges.

Unlike Arsenal they had a quick direct winger and Matt Jarvis, making his first start in six weeks, was the leading man of the first half, teasing away before he eventually nodded West Ham in front just before the break.

Jarvis could have won a penalty, staying on his feet when Bacary Sagna swung a leg at him, but Arsenal did not heed the warning. Jarvis tore down the left and whipped in a cross, which Thomas Vermaelen had to head away at the far post, before forcing another intervention from Mikel Arteta from a similar situation.

Soon enough, five minutes before the interval, Jarvis gave West Ham the lead. Guy Demel released Antonio Nocerino down the right, he shot from a tight angle but Wojciech Szczesny could only palm it back into the air. Jarvis was more alert than Laurent Koscielny and headed the ball in.

Arsenal had barely threatened, their best chance coming when Giroud, clean through on goal, tamely stabbed the ball with the outside of his left boot within reach of West Ham goalkeeper Adrian.

So it took a rare intervention from Podolski, out of nowhere, to save Arsenal from a very difficult half-time. Santi Cazorla played a beautifully disguised pass through to him, Podolski spun and finished decisively into the far bottom corner.

Podolski has not done much of note recently, but he looked sharp last night.

It took Arsenal only nine minutes of the second half to go into the lead, and this goal came as even more of a surprise. Arsenal had been sustaining some rather blunt pressure and Mohamed Diamé hacked a corner away upfield.

Vermaelen took possession in the centre circle and chipped a diagonal ball towards Giroud at the far post.

Wriggling free of Winston Reid, Giroud controlled the ball with remarkable poise, cushioning it down while holding off Andy Carroll as well before slotting the ball left-footed between Adrian's legs and in.

It was not what anyone expected from Giroud, especially after his first-half chance, but suddenly Arsenal were ahead.

Now the game was very different and Arsenal found some verve and energy that had been nowhere near their game in the first half.

Podolski forced Adrian to save a powerful free-kick from 20 yards out before Cazorla ran through the West Ham defence and shot narrowly wide from the edge of the box.

But having played two hours of draining football on Saturday, Arsenal needed more energy to hold onto their lead and so Aaron Ramsey, still on his way back after almost four months injured, was sent for to see the game out.

Ramsey's first involvement was to arrow a shot well over the bar from 20 yards out but his next, which settled the contest, was just like his old self.

Ramsey helped to launch a move from midfield, which led to Giroud taking the ball down the left wing. He cut it back and Ramsey, angling his body, played a through ball with his head, setting up Podolski in front of goal.

Once in those positions, there are few better, and Podolski shot high and hard, past Adrian and in.

The final minutes, for once, were unusually calm. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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