Arsenal 3 -3 Norwich
This game was a rather neat microcosm of our entire season. A fairly abject first half, a spirited improvement in the second, due largely to the unquestionable brilliance of Robin van Persie; and a heart-wrenching collapse at the finale. Having dragged us ourselves back from the brink to lead 3-2, we handed Norwich an equaliser, and in doing so may have handed third place to either Spurs or Newcastle.
That guaranteed Champions League spot seems to have been in our hands for a little while now. We’ve treated it like a hot potato, fumbling and flustering, and have now well and truly dropped it. Both chasing sides know now that if they win their remaining two games, they will finish above us – even if we beat West Brom on the final day.
If we play like we did yesterday, there’s little chance of us doing that. The first half was every bit as poor a performance as the one we put in against Wigan – worse, really, because it showed we’d learnt no lessons from that game.
The key area of the pitch was central midfield, where we had no shape or discipline. Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey were ostensibly the holding pair, but there was almost no protection provided for the back four. Norwich were canny and left three attackers up the pitch at all times. As Song and Ramsey bombed on, we were left vulnerable to counter-attack after counter-attack. Similarly, when the likes of Vermaelen pushed forward, neither Song nor Ramsey showed the initiative to fill in. Ultimately, would prove costly.
It all started so well when Yossi Benayoun, celebrating his 32nd birthday, curled home a peach of an effort with barely a minute on the clock. Unfortunately the rest of the team took it as a cue to sit back on their imagined laurels. Norwich were all over us in the first half, and their two goals were undoubtedly deserved. The first came after a simple move down the right-flank, although Wojciech Szczesny will be disappointed to be beaten so easily at the near post. He could do little about the second, which cannoned off Kieran Gibbs and looped over his head and in to the net. It reminded of the goal Louis Saha scored for Spurs when they led at half-time. Arsenal would need a similarly remarkable comeback in the second half to salvage anything from this game.
To give credit to the players, we showed a lot of spirit. The likes of Gervinho, abject in the first 45, suddenly sprung in to life. Of course it was Robin van Persie who scored the two goals to restore our lead – his 29th and 30th league goals of the season. The first saw him collect yet another of those clipped Alex Song passes to volley home; the second spin and fire in after a lucky deflection inside the penalty box.
At that point, there were 80 minutes on the clock. It tells you something about how dangerous Norwich looked, and how poorly we had defended, that I had absolutely no faith we would see through the game at 3-2. And so it proved: Alex Song gave the ball away, Kieran Gibbs inexplicably allowed Steve Morison to run beyond him, and the lifelong Spurs fan fired expertly past Szczesny, rooted to his line.
There was still time for Arsenal to spurn a couple of chances to win it, but in truth Norwich deserved at least a point. On the touchline, Arsene Wenger was as frustrated as he’s been all season, and that’s saying something. His irritation was with his own team. Yes, we should have a penalty, but so should Norwich. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.
There were mistakes and poor performances all over the pitch, but what stood out for me was how badly we missed Mikel Arteta. It remains the case that we have not won a Premier League game in his absence. Without him, I’m not sure Alex Song has the will or the nous to play as a true holding midfielder. Perhaps that’s something we need to address in the summer.
It was a particularly bad day for great Arsenal right-backs. This was almost certainly Pat Rice’s last home game before retirement, and he deserved a better send-off. Also, in a sad footnote to the game, Bacary Sagna broke the same fibula bone as earlier in the season, and will now miss the Euros and quite possibly the start of next season.
Before that there’s plenty to be decided. We’re now in a position whereby we need favours from other clubs: namely Man City, Aston Villa, Fulham, Everton and possibly Bayern Munich. Both Spurs and Newcastle face their hardest games today. If we’re to get a reprieve, it will surely come at Villa Park. It’s unlikely, but you never know.
As many said in the build-up to yesterday’s game: if we can’t beat Norwich, we don’t deserve Champions League football. Perhaps they were right.