Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Arsenal Beat West Ham To Regain Fourth Place

After qualifying for the FA Cup with a win over Wigan on penalties at the weekend Arsenal got back to Premier League action at home to West Ham last night. With Everton two points ahead of them in fourth place and only five games to go it was a must win game for Arsenal. They hadn't won in their last four league games though and if they were going to finish in the top four they had to start winning again. With an FA Cup final to come in mid May Arsenal's remaining six games were being described by some as six cup finals. 

The extra time and penalties at the weekend took their toll on the Arsenal players and Arsene Wenger decided not to risk either Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from the start. They're two players who could really have made a difference, but risking them after Sunday could have seriously hampered the team's chances for the remaining games. There will be no more midweek games from here on in and players will get a break of a week between each game.

There were five changes from the team which came through on Saturday with Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky, Kim Kallstrom and Olivier Giroud all coming into the team. The players to miss out were the injured Nacho Monreal, Ramsey, Chamberlain, Lukasz Fabianski and Yaya Sanogo. It meant there was very little pace in the team and I was worried that lack of pace would make it too easy for West Ham to defend.

The game didn't start too brightly for Arsenal as fatigue looked to be playing a part in a lethargic opening. The first couple of chances they got came to Giroud, but he failed to get on the end of a Lukas Podolski ball across the six yard line and then fluffed his lines badly when Santi Cazorla played him in with only the keeper to beat. That miss from Giroud seemed to lift the team though and they eventually found some fluency to put West Ham under pressure.

The pressure didn't pay off though and the moment I dreaded came just five minutes before the break when West Ham scored. Antonio Nocerino broke from midfield and got past Kallstrom but Szczesny managed to save twice from him before the ball popped up for Matt Jarvis to head into an empty net. Koscielny tried to get a foot to the ball as Jarvis headed it, but it was just as well he didn't because he probably would have got a red card and given West Ham a penalty too.

It didn't look good for Arsenal with half time approaching and it was vital for them to get back into the game before the break. Thankfully Stewart Downing fluffed a clearance with a minute to go to the break and Cazorla seized on the chance. He played a beautifully disguised ball to Podolski in the box and he turned and shot across the keeper into the far corner. It was just what Arsenal needed and it got the crowd right behind them just before the break. If they had gone in one behind the reaction from some of the crowd might have been very different.

There wasn't an awful lot of energy to Arsenal's start to the second half but they eventually started to pick the pace up gradually. West Ham's two wide players had looked good in the first half, but they gradually played more and more directly towards the head of Andy Carroll at any and every opportunity. He was pretty well marshalled by Per Mertesacker and Koscielny and their long ball tactics rarely threatened.

Only 10 minutes into the second half Arsenal took the lead when Thomas Vermaelen played a long ball back into the West Ham box after a corner had been cleared. Giroud brought the ball down beautifully on his left foot under pressure from two defenders and crashed it home between the keeper's legs with his weaker right foot. It was his 20th goal of the season in all competitions and it couldn't have come at a better time for Arsenal.

With just less than 20 minutes to go Ramsey came on for Rosicky and he had a big part in the third Arsenal goal six minutes later. He cushioned a header down to Podolski in the box and Podolski turned and crashed the ball past the keeper to extend Arsenal's lead. With 12 minutes left the game looked done and dusted and Arsenal managed to see it out without much incident. 

The three points moved them above Everton by one point with Everton playing at home to Palace tonight. Palace have proved very difficult to beat since Tony Pulis took the reins, but they are far better at home than away. I don't hold out much hope of Palace taking anything from Everton, but their next three games after Palace will be far from easy for them. At least Arsenal have put themselves in a position to take advantage of any slips by Everton in their last five games.

I thought Cazorla was Arsenal's best player last night and he showed glimpses of the form which impressed us all so much last season. He was ably assisted by Podolski with his two expertly taken goals and he showed exactly what he has to bring to the team when he gets a chance. I thought Vermaelen had a good game too after bring moved from the centre of defence to fill in at left back.

West Ham may not have had too much to play for but that didn't stop them taking a point at Chelsea a few weeks ago. They can be a tough team to beat and had a good defensive record away from home, but Arsenal managed to find enough to put a potentially tricky game behind them. If they're going to finish fourth they are going to have to show a lot more of that resilience in their remaining games.

Like a lot of others I have being giving Giroud a hard time recently as I just don't think he's good enough to be the first choice striker at the level Arsenal play. I was far from surprised when he made a complete mess of his great chance in the first half, but he took his goal really well. Hopefully that goal will give him the confidence to go on add a few more before the season ends.

It was good to end a run of four league games without a win and to come from behind to do it too. There are plenty of players to come back into the team in the coming weeks and hopefully all of that competition will be to the team's advantage. I would be very surprised if Everton didn't drop at least four points in their remaining five games and Arsenal have set themselves up to take advantage of any slips.

The win also put Arsenal seven points ahead of Spurs with four games to go and St. Totteringham's Day is suddenly drawing an awful lot closer. Arsenal will finish ahead of Spurs if they win two of their last four games and there's even a possibility of it happening this weekend if Spurs lose at home to Fulham and Arsenal win away to Hull. 

The chances of Spurs losing are slim, but Arsenal know they have to win the dress rehearsal for the cup final. Hull won't be easy to beat and will want to show Arsenal the cup final will be no pushover either. The big games just keep coming thick and fast and it's the best way to have it at this stage of the season.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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