Arsenal 3 – 3 Norwich City
1 – 0 Benayoun (2)
1 – 1 Hoolahan (12)
1 – 2 Holt (27)
2 – 2 van Persie (72)
3 – 2 van Persie (80)
3 – 3 Morison (85)
A bright new tomorrow briefly flickered through reliving yesterdays. Arsenal’s European fate for the following season was it seemed sealed by a Dutch master, Lord of all he surveyed. Instead Arsenal’s participation is in their hands, reliant upon the title desires of Manchester City and the survival instincts of Aston Villa to keep them ahead of the chasing pack. Either or both of those clubs are quite capable of going missing in their hours of need, City’s away form is far from convincing against big clubs whilst Villa seem content to let those below them do everything in their powers to get relegated so the West Midlanders stay up.
And yesterday’s performance deserved this situation yet it need not have been so. From kick-off, Arsenal gamboled through the Norwich defence finding Benayoun on the left side of the penalty area. He looked to pass but then stumbled before curling the ball sumptuously into the net. An outbreak of joy and from the stands, a genuine appreciation of his contribution to the improved form since February. Few, based on that reaction, would be unhappy if he returned on a permanent basis but I am still not sure it will happen.
But from then on, the match became instantly forgettable. Arsenal just switched off; I don’t know why, I would hate to think that the early goal bred arrogance in the players thinking that Norwich were poor but I certainly do believe it brought complacency to the surface in enough of the team for a negative impact to be felt. Within a quarter of an hour, the price would be heavily paid.
Warning signs should have registered quickly. Norwich mirrored their manager’s touchline persona, Jack Russell’s constantly on the move, skips and jumps from Lambert bringing about vigour and determination on the pitch. The visitors snapped at Arsenal’s ankles and Holt was denied by Gibbs with Szczesny rooted to the spot. That warning was not heeded and minutes later, Hoolahan’s shot was helped into net by the Pole; it is hard not to believe it a goalkeeping error although in fairness to Szczesny, it looked from our vantage point as if he had his weight on the right side of his body whilst the ball went left.
Arsenal offered little, their frollicking start had turned into the lumbering strides of an Old English Sheepdog. Not all of the side were affected; Rosicky flitted and buzzed into the Norwich midfield consistently all afternoon, offering a constant outlet and source of irritation to the visitors as well as hope for those of us stunned by the sudden impotence.
And still nothing of note emerged from elsewhere; Gervinho was ineffective on the right whilst starved of possession, Benayoun drifted inwards with Gibbs the only outlet on the left, leaving the full back exposed. Song could not find anything resembling form and descended into a morass of petulance and antagonism whilst Szczesny was hasty and inaccurate with his distribution. Ramsey offered calm and tried to form a barrier but was all too often isolated as the visitors easily by-passed. The result left van Persie on the periphary and the defence overworked.
And Norwich 2 – 1 ahead. The goal itself might have been entirely fortunate but was not undeserved. Another break into acres of space as an Arsenal attack needlessly broke down left Holt facing Gibbs. The youngster got his block on the City striker’s shot but instead of ricocheting to safety as it normally would, the ball arced over Szczesny into the back of net. Fortuitous, yes, and entirely merited.
It sparked a brief revival. van Persie could not connect with Sagna’s cross, the first of several that would traverse the six yard box without meaningful contact made. It was Sagna’s last contribution, collapsing on the turf in agony. Arsène suggested it was the result of an earlier robust challenge but contrary to the manager’s assertion, the defender was alone when it happened which is never a good sign.
Coquellin injected life, copying Rosicky’s zest rather than the lethargy of others and Arsenal picked up for the remainder of the first half. Gibbs tame shot went wide, Gervinho occupied the minds of the Norwich right with a switch of sides of the pitch before van Persie came to life with a shot from an acute angle.
The threatened revival never materialised in the second half with Norwich seeming more likely to nick a third than an Arsenal equaliser. On the hour signs of life; Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Ramsey and injected pace into the midfield whilst Benayoun should have done better with a header from a Rosicky set-piece. But it was Chamakh’s introduction and a move to 4-2-4 with AOC and Gervinho on the flanks that brought the pressure that changed the game.
The Moroccan offered the cameo that everyone has been desperate for, a thorn in the visitor’s side, a different outlet to the passing attacks that had meandered through the game. He was unfortunate not to score and more of this type of performance would have surely led to him featuring regularly? As it was his strike partner, breached the visitors twice in eight minutes. Alex Song momentarily stopped arguing with Holt to seize upon the rebound of Chamakh’s shot, clipping the ball into the path of…well, you know the rest, everyone has seen he and the Dutchman combine so effectively yet opponents are unable to counter.
With ten minutes to go, the relentless pursuit paid rewards. Panic on the edge of the visitors area allowed Rosicky a second bite of the cherry, Rosicky feeding van Persie, the Dutchman’s rampant finish into the net setting the stage for three points. Almost instantly, Arsenal retreated into their shells, the midfield close to the defence but ceding possession too readily as the gap to attack was too large and they paid the price, as once more a ball over the top of the Arsenal back found Morison with enough composure to beat Szczesny.
Enter Mr Taylor. His performance started promisingly, clamping down on snappy tackles but descended into the mires of ineptitude. Hoolahan should have been dismissed but his studs first challenge on Coquellin went unpunished yet there was no difference between that and the foul which saw Ramsey cautioned. His commonsense approach to Song and Holt benefitted both sides but how he missed the stonewall penalty at the end as van Persie ended in the net instead of the ball, is beyond comprehension.
Arsenal’s efforts were summed up when Reddy blocked Song’s backheel as the embers of the match briefly flickered. It didn’t and now Arsenal wait, staring the Europa League squarely in the face. But this season has twisted and turned so many ways that nothing can be taken for granted in the next two games of others. That is where we have come to; reliant upon the efforts of others, subservient rather than masters of our own destiny. And that is where it never should have ended.