By Richard Clarke
Arsenal secured a top-three finish in the Premier League with a comprehensive 4-0 win over Fulham on Sunday.
Having fallen away dramatically in the past month, Arsène Wenger's team had left themselves with a little something still to do on the final day of the season.
But they were up against a Fulham side who had the sizable distraction of that Europa League Final against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.
The visitors were expected to field a weakened side. They did.
Arsenal were expected to win comfortably. They did.
Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie and a Chris Baird own goal effectively gave the home side the game in the first 37 minutes.
Substitute Carlos Vela completed the scoring with a wonderful effort in the dying stages.
Third place was hardly the ideal denouement a month ago. But the statistics say Arsenal have finished a place higher than last season, having got more points and scored more goals.
It turned out that Liverpool were the Big Four side who buckled under the threat of the big spending chasers this season, not Arsenal.
Of course at the start of April, Wenger's men had realistic ambitions in the Champions League and the Premier League. However the might of Barcelona and rotten domestic run ruined that.
Still the manager's belief in his side remains stoic. Wenger has already spoken of small but significant changes over the summer.
If Arsenal improve in the way they have this season then surely they will be close to silverware next time.
As expected there was a major discrepancy between the relative strength of the sides on show. Arsenal still needed a point for the security of third place while Fulham had that major date in Hamburg on Wednesday.
Wenger brought back Gael Clichy and Arshavin into the starting line-up after injury. But the problems that had blighted Arsenal all season were still apparent.
Henri Lansbury, just back from a loan spell at Watford, was on the bench. So were Johan Djourou, who had not played all season, and Kieran Gibbs, who had not figured since November.
Fulham had fielded a full-strength side against Stoke on Wednesday. But understandably, today's side was very different.
Only keeper Schwarzer is a definite starter in the Europa League Final though Clint Dempsey and Erik Nevland may well have a role. Pretty much the Fulham bench on Wednesday started the game this afternoon, supported by one of the Premier League's most impressive keepers.
The expectation of Fulham changes extracted some of the tension from this game. The atmosphere was pretty flat around Emirates. It was understandable given the disappointments of previous weeks but there was still a job for Arsenal to do this afternoon.
Finishing fourth would not only mean they were below Tottenham in the table, there would also require them to play a Champions League qualifier.
It was hard to tell which more unpalatable.
However this afternoon was never going to come down to that. Arsenal took the game by the throat early and Fulham had neither the will nor, today at least, the guile to take it from them.
There was an early scare though. In the third minute, Nicky Shorey floated over a free-kick, Lukasz Fabianski missed his punch and, after a heart-in-mouth melee, Arsenal cleared their lines.
It was a shot across the bows, albeit a scuffed, mis-hit one and the home side were stung into a response. In the ninth minute, Van Persie's curling free-kick from the right had to be hurriedly tipped over by the backtracking Schwarzer.
Nasri trickled a shot wide and Arshavin's deflected effort also caused a rippled of consternation in the Fulham defence. But then the visitors were doing likewise with those optimistic free-kicks.
Arsenal needed a goal to settle them; in the 21st minute, Arshavin hunted one down. Schwarzer attempted to control a back pass on the right of the area but his touch was heavy. The Russian skipped past the keeper on the byline and held his nerve to fire past two defenders on the line. It was reminiscent of Kanu's famous hat-trick goal at Chelsea in 1999 - but a darn sight more important.
If that broke Fulham's early resistance, the second broke their hearts, in terms of this game at least.
In the 26th minute, Sagna set Walcott free on the right. He crossed to Van Persie whose first effort deflected high off Schwarzer and hit the bar. It bounced down kindly for the Dutchman who had time and space to fire his 10th goal of the campaign. If only he had been fit for longer.
Arsenal now had control and Fulham started to save their competitiveness for Wednesday. Eight minutes from the break, they conceded an almost comical third.
Walcott crossed low from the right. The ball went through the legs of Shorey then past Kagisho Dikgacoi. Eboue's backflick nutmegged John Pantsil and so there was a certain sympathy when a bewildered Baird stabbed the ball past his own keeper.
A couple of minutes later another Eboue backflick, this time from Van Persie pacy through ball, sent Walcott clear on the right. He had a number of options but ended up dragging a shot wide.
Fulham created a couple of scares just before the whistle.
First Stefano Okaka wriggled past Campbell but failed to get his shot away and, in injury time, Nevland looped a header on to the bar.
The Norwegian thumped a drive against the base of the post two minutes after the restart unaware that he had been flagged offside.
In the 50th minute, Sagna sent over an incisive cross from the right and Van Persie sidefooted his initial shot against Schwarzer and the rebound against the woodwork.
Fulham were more offensive now but Arsenal were having the opportunities. Van Persie and Arshavin both had half-chances but you already had the feeling that the home side were pretty satisfied with their work this afternoon.
Dempsey and Eboue both had creditable shouts for penalties turned down. But by now, Wenger felt comfortable enough to bring on Djourou for his season's debut and Lansbury for his Premier League bow.
However it would be the third substitute who caught the eye. Six minutes from time, Vela burst through and lifted his shot over Schwarzer. It was the cheekiest of finishes.
At full time, the crowd stayed on for the players' lap of appreciation. The feeling was clearly mutual.
Arsenal's might not have won anything this season but they have lost nothing and, indeed, gained a little ground.
That should not be forgotten throughout the summer months.
- Fabianski Yellow Card
- Eboue Yellow Card
- Silvestre 62
- Arshavin 77 Goal!
- Walcott 77
- Persie Goal!
- Djourou 62
- Lansbury 77
- Vela 77 Goal!
- Smalling Yellow Card
- Pantsil 59
- Riise 45
- Dempsey 67 Yellow Card
- Kelly 59
- Stoor 67
- Elm 45