Arsenal left to hope after Norwich stun the Emirates
Premier League: Arsenal 3 Norwich City 3
‘You can’t predict games – this is the season anything can happen’. That was the conclusion of one Arsenal supporter on the tube before the game, and it certainly summed this campaign up for Arsenal.
All the Gunners had to do was beat a Norwich side with very little to play for to keep their destiny in their own hands in the race for Champions League places, yet it proved beyond them in an enthralling encounter at the Emirates.
From 1-0 in front, to 2-1 behind, to 3-2 up and then, ultimately, a result that could just spell the end of Arsenal’s 15 years in the Champions League.
If Tottenham and Newcastle win their remaining games, Arsenal will finish fifth, outside the top four for the first time under Arsene Wenger.
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That may not happen, with Spurs visiting Aston Villa and Newcastle hosting title-chasing Manchester City, but Arsenal let a glorious opportunity slip through their grasp here.
Somehow Arsenal dragged themselves back from an abject first-half performance to lead with eight minutes to go. But they could not hold on, and at the end of the game the Emirates was like a wake.
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Robin van Persie reached 30 Premier League goals with the two strikes that saw Arsenal lead 3-2, but it was not enough.
All Arsenal can do now is sit and watch Sunday’s games, and hope that their fate will still be in their own hands when they visit West Bromwich Albion on the final day of the season.
It could still happen, but if it doesn’t how they will regret this game, in which they were given the perfect start against a side who had one eye on their well-deserved summer break.
Wenger may have had some selection posers before the game, but he would have been very glad that he eventually decided to start with Yossi Benayoun.
Most fans were still finishing their breakfasts and taking their seats when the Israeli cut on from the left flank and curled a sumptuous shot inside John Ruddy’s far corner to give Arsenal a first-minute lead.
Norwich had not beaten Arsenal for 20 years and that, for many people was that. They settled into their seats and started to wonder how many the Gunners would score.
Paul Lambert’s side have not had that kind of season though, and any notion that this game was a foregone conclusion was soon dispelled by a couple of rapid counter-attacks, and only a Kieran Gibbs block prevented Simeon Jackson scoring an equaliser.
Five minutes later there was to be no denying them. Kyle Naughton, on loan from Spurs, raced down the right flanks and centred for Wes Hoolahan to sidefoot goalwards. Wojciech Szczesny should have kept his low effort out, but could only divert it into the net.
That jolted the Arsenal fans from their reverie, and there was worse to come. The Gunners just seemed flat-footed at the back, and Norwich looked dangerous every time they got the ball.
On 26 minutes it was no real surprise that they went in front, even if there was a large slice of fortune attached to their second goal.
Holt moved into space on the left of the Arsenal box and shaped to shoot but Gibbs moved in to block the shot only for the ball to loop up off his shin, over a stranded Szczesny and into the net.
That stunned the home supporters but their side looked completely disjointed. Van Persie got close to converting a Gervinho cross but Arsenal were rattled, even more so when Bacary Sagna collapsed in agony and immediately signalled for the stretchers to carry him off.
He was replaced at right-back by Francis Coquelin, who then went perilously close to conceding a penalty with a tackle on Hoolahan that was given a very narrow benefit of the doubt by referee Anthony Taylor.
The game started to get a little fractious. Benayoun lashed out at Simon Lappin, and Jackson scythed through Coquelin, but then Laurent Koscielny grappled with Russell Martin in the Arsenal box and was then again very fortunate not to concede a spot-kick.
The first half ended with Arsenal in disarray, Holt almost scoring a third and Wenger looking glad to get his shell-shocked side back in the dressing room for what was surely, even from the Frenchman, a stern talking to
It did not make much difference. Norwich had a golden chance to move two goals clear when Jackson left Koscielny for dead and raced through only to shoot tamely at Szczesny.
Arsenal were then lucky not to be reduced to 10 men after Ramsey went in foolishly late on Naughton, but referee Taylor played an advantage for the visitors and then decided it did not warrant a second caution. The replays did not back up that view.
The Gunners were at least starting to threaten and should have levelled on the hour when, in an astonishing scramble, first Van Persie and then Ramsey failed to convert from close range following a cross from Gibbs.
Wenger had seen enough and sent on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Ramsey, but it seemed an awful lot to ask of the 18-year-old to effectively save Arsenal’s season.
In the end, it was the man who has done it all season who was destined to do so again with 18 minutes to go. After another desperate block from the Norwich defence, Alex Song chipped in a pass that has become a trademark this season, and there was Van Persie, ghosting behind the defence to volley home his 29th league goal of the campaign.
He and the rest of the Emirates knew that one goal was not enough though. Substitute Marouane Chamakh had a great chance to score with a header, but the Moroccan’s season has been a disaster and he headed over.
Van Persie knew he would have to do hit himself. With just under 10 minutes to go the ball ricocheted to him in the box and he stabbed the ball home, via Ruddy’s shoulder.
The Emirates erupted in delirium. But there were still nine minutes to go and Arsenal’s shaky defence had to hold out. Norwich almost levelled immediately, but within three minutes they had, substitute Steve Morison taking advantage of hesitancy from Szczesny and drilling a fine finish inside the far post.
Even then Arsenal had chances to make it 4-3, Van Persie seeing an effort blocked and then Gibbs denied by the excellent Ruddy right at the death.
But at the whistle the Arsenal players conducted the most mournful of end of season laps of honour. Who knows what next season will bring – after this it could well be the Europa League.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna (Coquelin, 34), Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Ramsey (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 62) Song, Gervinho, Rosicky, Benayoun (Chamakh, 70), Van Persie.
Subs not used: Fabianski, Park, Andre Santos, Djourou.
Booked: Ramsey, Vermaelen.
Norwich: Ruddy, Naughton, Ryan Bennett, Martin, Lappin, Johnson, Howson, Elliott Bennett, Hoolahan (Pilkington, 75), Jackson (Morison, 70), Holt.
Subs not used: Steer, Morison, Surman, Fox, Ward.
Booked: Jackson, Hoolahan, Wilbraham.
Att: 60, 092