Wenger re­lieved as first-choice Arse­nal show fans what might have been

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE - By Jeremy Wil­son at the Emi­rates

Has there ever been a more un­likely, im­promptu or ec­stat­i­cally cel­e­brated St Tot­ter­ing­ham’s Day? It is the name Arse­nal fans have given for the date on which the now an­nual as­cen­dancy over their fierce ri­vals is con­firmed, but it is doubt­ful that even one sup­porter ar­rived here yes­ter­day se­ri­ously ex­pect­ing that se­quence to be up­held.

Even Arsène Wenger, who has now guided Arse­nal to a Premier League fin­ish above Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur for 20 straight sea­sons, seemed shocked. He was in­formed of the fourth and fifth New­cas­tle United goals by an Arse­nal fan be­hind the dugout and, with his own team al­ready sure of their win, re­sponded with a clenched fist up­per­cut. It was an in­stinc­tive and very gen­uine ges­ture that un­der­lined his per­sonal pride at that par­tic­u­lar record and his acute ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the wider significance.

By end­ing such a tense sea­son with the big­gest high of the whole cam­paign, much of the pres­sure sur­round­ing Wenger was vis­i­bly eased. A sec­ond-place fin­ish is Arse­nal’s best since 2005 al­though it would clearly also be haz­ardous to over­look how they have prof­ited from the im­plo­sion of their ri­vals.

A fi­nal tally of 71 points re­mains Arse­nal’s low­est since 2012 and their 65 goals were also their fewest since 2007. Wenger ap­peared to ac­knowl­edge these de­fi­cien­cies by ad­mit­ting he wants to make three sign­ings and, even af­ter a hat-trick by Olivier Giroud and the mid­field re­turns of Jack Wil­shere and Santi Ca­zorla, the team’s cen­tral spine must re­main the trans­fer pri­or­ity.

Hav­ing sprin­kled a lit­tle salt in Tot­ten­ham’s wounds by not­ing that “it looked for many years” like they would fin­ish above Arse­nal, Wenger said he still could not count the sea­son as a suc­cess. “We are sec­ond in the league and we want to be first,” he said. “We are not happy but the 18 other teams be­hind would be happy to be in our po­si­tion. For a while, our sup­port­ers have not been go­ing home happy and at least to­day they had some sat­is­fac­tion.”

Af­ter the at­tempted fan protest two weeks ago, there were even plenty of chants for Wenger on the lap of ap­pre­ci­a­tion. “A pos­i­tive feel­ing,” said Wenger. “I am not masochist enough to love to be booed.”

But he will be well aware that the mood could turn again if he does not act de­ci­sively in the trans­fer mar­ket and next sea­son does not be­gin well. Avoid­ing ma­jor in­juries is also cru­cial, with Wil­shere and Ca­zorla fi­nally start­ing yes­ter­day for the first time this sea­son.

Roy Hodg­son was present to see Wil­shere’s re­turn but there was to be no in­volve­ment for Theo Wal­cott, whose mi­nor ham­string in­jury fur­ther length­ens the odds of him mak­ing Eng­land’s Euro 2016 squad.

It did not take long for As­ton Villa to demon­strate just why they have ended the sea­son with half as many points as the next worst club. Na­cho Mon­real was re­leased down Arse­nal’s left and, while his cross was cer­tainly pre­cise, it is doubt­ful whether Giroud would be af­forded more space in a train­ing ground ex­er­cise against a few man­nequins. Nei­ther of Villa’s cen­tre-backs – Joleon Lescott and Kevin Toner – stepped out to con­test the cross, but even then Giroud’s header should have been saved, as the ball squirmed be­neath goal­keeper Mark Bunn. Villa’s vis­it­ing sup­port­ers

saw the funny side. Only five min­utes had elapsed but they taunted the Arse­nal play­ers for be­ing so slow to take the lead.

De­spite hav­ing not ex­pe­ri­enced an away vic­tory since the open­ing day of the sea­son, they still trav­elled in large num­bers and even the fee­blest of shots by Ash­ley West­wood prompted a huge cheer.

A sub­se­quent cor­ner that came to noth­ing was then greeted with the sort of cel­e­bra­tions usu­ally re­served for a goal. The more se­ri­ous point was that Arse­nal were ac­tu­ally labour­ing. Their fans had re­acted to news of New­cas­tle’s goals with suf­fi­cient ex­cite­ment to make the play­ers well aware that sec­ond place was now fea­si­ble but a se­ries of good chances came and went be­fore Arse­nal’s pres­sure fi­nally paid off. Me­sut Özil had got into space down the left and his cross was eas­ily con­verted by Giroud. It was Özil’s 19th as­sist of the sea­son to leave him only one be­hind Thierry Henry’s all­time Premier League record.

Villa had put up some re­sis­tance be­tween the first and sec­ond goals but they were now beaten and, fol­low­ing a sim­ple Hec­tor Bel­lerin through-ball, Giroud com­pleted his hat-trick. News then fil­tered through of Tot­ten­ham’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pit­u­la­tion on Ty­ne­side.

Fi­nally, a tear­ful Mikel Arteta came on to mark one last ap­pear­ance with a shot that led to Arse­nal’s fourth goal, and a sea­son of al­most un­par­al­leled frus­tra­tion was to end in rap­tur­ous cel­e­bra­tion.

Hats off: Olivier Giroud capped the sea­son fi­nale with three goals

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.