Saturday, May 5, 2012

Arsenal 3 - Norwich City 3

Arsenal got off to the best possible start with birthday-boy Youssi Benayoun scoring just over a minute into the game on a beautifully curled shot from the left channel into the right corner of the net. Almost immediately the entire Gunners squad seemed to switch off, as if they already had the match in their back pockets. And Norwich punished them with two goals to take a well-earned lead into the halftime break. (It really should have been 3-1 at the break, but the referee inexplicably didn't see or punish Koscielny for grabbing and pulling a shirt in desperation in the Arsenal box).

Arsenal's first-half lethargy, exemplified by the failure of Ramsey, Song, and Rosicky to track back on defense, was incomprehensible given the stakes. Today's game was a must-win for the Gunenrs. With Chelsea playing in the Champion's League (CL) final (admittedly at a huge disadvantage to Bayern Munich because several key players are rendered ineligible by the accumulation of yellow cards in earlier rounds), Arsenal must  play as if finishing in the top three (rather than the top four) is necessary to qualify for the Champion's League. Should Chelsea prevail in the CL final, they would automatically qualify for next year's competition, notwithstanding their failure to finish in the top-four of the Premier League (PL); as a consequence only the top three PL finishers would go into the CL.

Heading into today's game, Arsenal were in third place in the PL and firmly in control of their own destiny, but with no margin for error, leading both Tottenham and Newcastle by 1 slim point. Winning both of their remaining games (today at home against Norwich and next weekend away against West Brom) would assure the Gunners a CL spot. A loss or draw in today's match would open the door for both Spurs and Toon to overtake them. I'm sure Arsene Wenger did not have to remind his players of that fact at halftime. But he did have to light a fire under them.

Whatever Wenger said at halftime, it worked at least temporarily. Arsenal upped the pace and piled on the pressure at the start of the second half, but didn't find the back of the net. Meanwhile, their tracking back on defense proved no better than in the first half, and Norwich continued to create good chances on the counter. In fact, the visitors created more and better chances than the Gunners. Arsenal were lucky to still be in the game when, in the 59th minute, they mounted a good counterattack of their own but somehow conspired not to score, when a goal seemed inevitable.

With a quarter of the match to go, a Norwich victory seemed more likely than an Arsenal comeback.  But then, in the 72d minute, Arsenal finally scored, when Alex Song picked out van Persie with a pass over the top, and RvP finished calmly (as usual) past the goalkeeper.

With the game back in balance, Arsenal continued to pile on the pressure, and should have had a penalty of their own on a hand-ball in the box (evening out the score after the referee's decision not to give a penalty on Koscielny's shirt-pulling in the first half). All of a sudden, the entire Arsenal side started playing with more pace and more belief, knowing that a single point was not enough - they needed a win. And they looked to have secured it in the 80th minute, when RvP (who else) took advantage of a ricocheted pass that fell to his feet, and he blasted the ball with his weaker left foot. The Norwich goalie got a hand to the shot, but wasn't strong enough to keep it out of the net.

But Norwich weren't done. Like Arsenal, they used their subs to put more attackers on the pitch, and the gamble paid off when Morrison got behind them and scored on a well-placed shot from the right channel. After that all bets were off on the outcome of the match. Arsenal could not afford to leave the match at 3-3,  and piled on even more pressure, which left their own defense vulnerable. The last 10 minutes of the match, plus stoppage time, Gunners fans had their hearts in their mouths, waiting to see which team would score the seemingly inevitable tie-breaking goal. But it was not to be. In the last two minutes of stoppage time, the Gunners had a wealth of chances but could not put the ball in the net.

Norwich clearly were the better side for most of the match, outplaying and outworking the Gunners throughout the first 75 minutes of the match. For Arsenal, this was the most baffling performance of an up-and-down season. With their destiny in their own hands (or feet, as it were), the Gunners were inexplicably poor for most of the match. In the end, they could only manage a draw, which wasn't good enough. The door is now open for both Spurs and Toon, both of whom could finish above Arsenal in the table by winning their final two matches of the season, shutting the Gunners out of the CL regardless of Chelsea's result in this year's CL final. If the Gunners don't make the CL next year, they will have only themselves to blame. Even worse, it could increase the probability that RvP will leave in summer.

UPDATE: The news gets worse. Bacary Sagna left the game in the second half after suffering what has since been confirmed as a fractured leg. Not only will he miss the last game of the season, but this summer's European Championships as well. He's been among Arsenal's more consistent performers this season.

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