Arsenal Lose Their Grip on Third Place by Drawing 3-3 with Norwich City
Arsenal went into yesterday's game at home to Norwich City with their fate in their own hands. All they had to do was beat Norwich and then beat West Brom next week to finish third in the Premier League. It was a very simple scenario, but Arsenal rarely do things the simple way.
Arsene Wenger picked the same team that drew 1-1 away to Stoke last week, and it was a team with enough ability to get the job done. Unfortunately it would seem that yet again, the Arsenal players felt the game was a foregone conclusion. The very same thing happened away to QPR and at home to Wigan when both of those games were lost.
The game couldn't have started better for Arsenal with Yossi Benayoun putting them 1-0 up after little more than a minute. He was found by a Tomas Rosicky pass just outside the box, and he curled home a lovely goal as the defenders backed off. It was the perfect start for Arsenal, but it soon became apparent they wouldn't have things all their own way.
Norwich showed the attitude and desire that the Arsenal players seemed to be missing and dominated the game. Arsenal were unable to shake off their lethargy, and Norwich took advantage with goals from Wes Hoolohan and Grant Holt. The manner in which Arsenal conceded those goals was nothing short of a shambles at best.
Hoolahan got the first of those goals with a first-time shot from 10 yards that seemed to go right through Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal. Szczesny had the type of game yesterday that has seen other Arsenal goalkeepers get a very hard time from the fans. His distribution and kicking was very poor at best, but he wasn't the only Arsenal player who played badly.
The second goal from Holt had a huge slice of fortune about it, as it deflected over Kieran Gibbs and into the net. The fact that Gibbs was the man trying to stop Holt is another matter, as Norwich took Arsenal apart on the break time after time. Too many Arsenal players were simply unwilling to do what was expected of them, or unable to do so.
Will Arsenal finish third in the Premier League this season?
Holt was a huge problem for the Arsenal defence all day, as his ability to make any long pass stick to him frustrated them. Thomas Vermaelen had another awful game, and if Sebastien Squillaci played like that, the fans would have given him a tough time, too.
The defence weren't helped by a midfield which went missing for the first hour of the game with Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey also having very bad games.
To make matters worse for Arsenal, Bacary Sagna went off after just over 30 minutes with his second broken leg of the season. He won't be making the trip to Euro 2012 with France, and it was a sad day for him. With no direct replacement on the bench for Sagna, it was left to Francis Coquelin to come on and play at right back.
I'm not sure how Sagna managed to break his leg, as he tried to take down a pass. There were no Norwich players anywhere near him at the time, and I don't know if it actually happened in a previous challenge.
The second half started in the very same manner with Arsenal struggling to find any cohesion, and Norwich looking very dangerous on the break. They could and should have had a penalty, and maybe both Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny could have had their marching orders, too. The Arsenal team were going nowhere, and Wenger had to change something.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Ramsey, and Marouane Chamakh came on for Benayoun to try to change things around. Their impact seemed to change the pace of the Arsenal play, and Norwich started to tire a little, too. All of a sudden, Arsenal looked capable of getting the goals they needed, and the goals did come.
The equaliser was tucked home by Robin van Persie after a good ball over the defence from Song. Song had tried to play killer passes all through the game, and none of them were anywhere near their target until he made that goal. He may have made the goal, but the amount of possession he wasted by trying to play those passes too often was ridiculous.
The momentum was with Arsenal and they pushed forward, looking for the all-important third goal. With 10 minutes to go, it was that man RVP who yet again got the goal after the ball deflected to him 10 yards out. The home fans were ecstatic, and the players only needed to be professional for the last 10 minutes.
It was obvious straight away that Arsenal were going to struggle, as Norwich set about them yet again. It was no surprise at all when the equaliser came for them with five minutes remaining. Steve Morison was played in behind the Arsenal defence, and he finished very well past Szczesny into the far corner.
The chance for Norwich came about after another poor pass from Song in midfield, and it left Arsenal with five minutes to save the game. RVP missed a great chance from six yards out with only the keeper to beat, and Song almost scored with a back-heeled attempt. Arsenal continued to pour forward, as the four added minutes counted down.
With very little time left, the chance Arsenal wanted arrived when RVP closed in on a Chamberlain cross at the far post. It looked like he was certain to poke the ball home, but a push in the back from a Norwich defender saw him end up in the back of the net instead of the ball.
It was an absolute stone wall penalty, but to be honest, it should have been a free out first when a clearly offside Gervinho went for the ball.
At the final whistle, the Arsenal players were clearly disappointed, but they had no one to blame other than themselves. The performances of a few of the players were absolutely awful, and some of those players need to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. The overall strength of the squad was shown up when players who have clearly being struggling recently had to be selected.
It looks like third place has been blown by Arsenal with Spurs in particular the most likely to take advantage. A win for them today away to struggling Aston Villa will see them having to win their final game at home to Fulham to finish third, and there is nothing Arsenal can do about it.
Even if Spurs don't win today, there is every chance Arsenal will be just as bad against West Brom next week when they have to win again.
When the pressure was on the team, far too many players were found wanting. It has to be asked whether there is a mindset at the club that is completely wrong. How can Arsenal fall apart in the run in yet again, as they have done for too many seasons in a row.
Where were the leaders on the pitch yesterday to take control of the team when they took a 3-2 lead with 10 minutes left? Where were the calm heads to settle others around them who were unsure of what to do? I don't think it's any surprise that Arsenal's collapse has coincided with the injury to Mikael Arteta.
He has been a huge influence in the team this season, but his purchase was hardly part of the long-term plan for the club. Arsenal only looked to buy him with the summer transfer window a matter of hours away from closing, and it's probably just by chance that he has come to be so influential. Maybe the Arsenal players are protected too much by the club, and when the going gets tough, they are found wanting.
Arsenal might still finish third in the Premier League, but I doubt it. Even if they do, it will still not hide the problems the squad has, and they have to be addressed this summer. Besides players of real ability, Arsenal need to bring in some players who have real mental strength, and can change the mindset of a team that crumble far too often in my opinion.
I'll be watching the games today in hope more than expectation that results go in Arsenal's favour. No matter what happens today, Arsenal can still finish third, but after yesterday's game, it's now out of their control. It's a scenario which never should have been allowed to happen, but it's a reality now.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.
See you tomorrow.
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