Emirates Stadium, LONDON — Sunday evoked rather unfamiliar sensations within Arsenal fans. In each of the past two years, they have endured a nail-biting fight to the finish to secure fourth place. This time around, it was wrapped up with two matches to spare.
It meant Arsenal could take it pretty easy in their final home match of the 2013/14 season against West Brom. Arsene Wenger even decided that he could afford to rest Aaron Ramsey, still rediscovering his rhythm after an absence of more than four months.
The sun was out, the fans were in good spirits and Arsenal might have been forgiven for imagining that the celebratory atmosphere might translate into a thrashing. After just 14 minutes, Olivier Giroud met a Santi Cazorla corner with a powerful header to put the Gunners ahead. The West Brom fans had brought beach balls with them, but looked dramatically deflated.
However, a mauling never materialised. Instead, the game slowed to a soporific pace. It felt more akin to a friendly match than a Premier League tie.
It was strange, because the Baggies still had plenty to play for. They’re not yet mathematically safe from relegation, and their pre-match huddle and attacking line-up suggested they were coming to Arsenal with every intention of causing an upset. Despite those signs, they were curiously pliant all afternoon. Arsenal were able to stay in second or third gear and were never sorely tested.
As the game entered the last 20 minutes, Arsenal fans expected a West Brom rally. It never really arrived. Instead, the Gunners coasted towards victory.
In truth, some of the most entertaining action happened after the final whistle. As has become tradition, the Arsenal players embarked on a “lap of appreciation," thanking the fans for their support throughout the season. The circuit of the pitch was led by Bacary Sagna, which held a special poignancy.
This could be the last time Sagna plays a home match at the Emirates Stadium. That fact was not lost on the Arsenal fans, who serenaded him with chants of “we want you to stay” throughout the game.
Sagna and several other team-mates stayed on the pitch for sometime after the final whistle. Notably, the French full-back had several photographs taken with his family in the centre of the pitch. This felt, for all intents and purposes, like a farewell.
In the background, the players’ children kicked a ball about. Mikel Arteta’s son caught the eye with some silky skills. Jack Wilshere’s son Archie repeatedly broke away from his dad. Just like his father, he knows how to escape a marker’s clutches. With the youngsters having fun on the pitch, thoughts inevitably turned to the future. With or without Sagna, Arsenal still have a chance of mounting a title challenge next season.
Before that, there is the important business of an FA Cup Final. Arsenal’s season could yet finish with another parade.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report’s lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.