Arsenal face the wrath of fans after Aston Villa surrender
Gunners face battle for third place following dismal Emirates defeat
Unrest off the pitch, and upset on it, this was not quite the end of season finale that was envisaged at the Emirates.
As Arsenal’s disillusioned supporters railed against ticket prices, the club’s players showed none of that fighting spirit in a meek surrender to Aston Villa to suffer a fourth and final home league defeat of the season.
The Gunners now have a fight on their hands to claim third place and with it the final automatic Champions League qualifying slot. If Manchester City beat Stoke on Tuesday and win at Bolton next weekend then they will come third, regardless of Arsenal’s result at Fulham.
The punishment fo Arsene Wenger’s side will be a pre-season disrupting two-legged qualifier in early August, and while Arsenal have progressed smoothly on their previous three such play-off round encounters, the draw is getting far trickier, the opposition far more competent, with each passing year.
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One thing is certain,a defensive display that mirrored the one against Aston Villa will not suffice against any side, no matter which part of the continent they come from.
Two smartly-taken goals from Darren Bent inside thhe first 16 minutes effectively decided the match, even if Arsenal then dominated for long periods and should have salvaged at least a draw and a point that would have kept third place within their grasp.
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The defensive malaise was even more surprising given that the back four featured a player in Thomas Vermaelen who had not started a game for the Gunners since August 28.
But any joy Arsenal fans felt at seeing the Belgian back at the heart of the defence soon dissipated after a nightmarish opening quarter of an hour.
There had already been a warning sign when Bent and Ashley Young failed to take advantage of a two on two situation, but the opening goal was not long in coming.
Bent took his first brilliantly, controlling a long ball on his chest before swivelling to hit a volley beyond Wojciech Szczesny.
If that was bad, there was worse to come. Sebastien Squillaci, who had been out of position for the first goal, was caught dreaming again, Vermaelen’s challenge also left a lot to be desired and Bent was in the clear to slot home his and Villa’s second goal.
Stunned, Arsenal reacted but were denied a clear penalty when Aaron Ramsey was felled in the act of shooting by Richard Dunne. Referee Michael Oliver waved away the claims, but on second viewing it looked a definite penalty, and in all probability a red card too.
Arsenal should still have halved the deficit before the break, Robin van Persie breaking clear in the box and eventually twisting free to strike the base of a post.
But when the half-time whistle sounded the Gunners left the pitch to a cacophony of booing, and you could not really blame the Emirates faithful – this was truly miserable fare.
Wenger reacted by making a significant change, the woeful Squillaci making may for Marouane Chamakh, the Arsenal manager finally addressing the quite glaring problem that Van Persie was isolated up front.
The Gunners dominated most of the second half, but could not fashion many decent chances. Kieran Gibbs went close, Theo Walcott should have done better with a shot which was deflected wide.
Villa had a decent chance to add a third when Szczesny twice denied them, and then with 14 minutes remaining Arsenal did finally get the ball in the net, only to be frustrated by another questionable decision.
Chamakh rose to head home a Walcott cross, but referee Oliver disallowed the goal, citing a push that was not too visible on a number of replays.
A goal then and you would have fancied Arsenal for a point. But it just added to the mounting frustration around the Emirates, with disgruntled fans making their point to the directors’ box that this is not the kind of display that will tempt them to renew their season tickets at increased prices in the net few weeks.
Tempers also threatened to boil over on the pitch with Luke Young and Bacary Sagna going head to head, after which Van Persie was denied by Brad Friedel.
With a minute to go Arsenal did finally score, substitute Nicklas Bendtner making a nuisance of himself in the box and the ball breaking for Van Persie to keep up his impressive recent scoring record with his 21st goal of the season.
It was too late to get anything out of the game, however, as Villa held on through four minutes of injury-time to claim an unlikely win.
Arsenal were left to do their traditional end of season lap of honour to a two-thirds empty stadium, not quite what they had envisaged back in February when the campaign promised so much.
It now looks set to merely deliver the very minimum requirement – a fourth-placed finish – and plenty of soul-searching amongst supporters, players and the management over the summer.