By Richard Clarke
Arsenal moved up to third in the Premier League despite allowing a two-goal lead to slip at West Ham on Sunday.
First-half strikes from Robin van Persie and William Gallas should have given the visitors a straight-forward victory.
Their hosts seemed to be struggling for ideas and confidence on the day. However, as at Alkmaar in midweek, Arsenal dropped points after being caught late on.
West Ham grabbed a lifeline with 14 minutes left after Vito Mannone parried Alessandro Diamanti’s free-kick onto the head of Carlton Cole, who scored from close range.
Four minutes later, Alex Song was adjudged to have touched Cole and Diamanti gleefully equalised from the spot.
Scott Parker’s dismissal clipped the wings of West Ham’s chances of completing the comeback. The home side were also indebted to keeper Robert Green for a stupendous save from Van Persie in injury time.
In midweek, Arsenal’s profligacy cost them little in the long-term. However this could be a more damaging draw.
They had an opportunity to steal ground and they could not take it. This can only be seen as two points dropped.
The stands at Upton Park only began to fill up 30 minutes before kick-off. The bars inside and outside the ground were packed with fans glued to the crucial clash at Anfield. Liverpool’s victory over Manchester United gave Arsenal another opportunity to catch the teams at the top of the table.
The side Wenger entrusted with that task was the same one as Tuesday night. That meant Mannone kept his place despite the return to fitness of Manuel Almunia. The Spaniard was on the bench again.
He was joined by a trio of fit-again players – Eduardo (thigh), Nicklas Bendtner (groin) and, in his first appearance of the season, Samir Nasri (broken leg).
In many ways this was enemy territory for Wenger’s men but, today, an enboldened Arsenal were willing to go at West Ham straight from the off.
In the opening eight minutes, Van Persie saw a backheel blocked and a rising drive tipped over at the near post.
West Ham had pressure but they also had the look of a side who had not won since the opening day of the season.
Teams in that position play reasonably well then concede easy goals – and that is precisely what happened to the home side.
In the 16th minute, Abou Diaby sprung Bacary Sagna on the right. His delicious cross curled away from Green, who followed it out but could only get the merest touch. The ball fell onto the foot of Van Persie, who, almost apologetically volleyed home his sixth goal of the season into the empty net.
West Ham’s response was admirable. In Cole, they had a willing workhorse in the forward channels. Midway through the half the confusion he created on the edge of the area saw Mark Noble wriggle free on the right and fire low into the sidenetting.
However Van Persie was still the biggest thorn in their side. Midway through the half, Andrey Arshavin sent him clear and only a timely invention by James Tomkins prevented the striker scoring. Shortly afterwards he nudged a diving header just wide.
Although Arsenal were the better side they were hardly water-tight at the back. Just past the half-hour, Noble’s free-kick rebounded off the wall and when the ball came back in to the area, Cole slid a header just wide.
This was looking like Tuesday all over again. Arsenal in control and yet not prepared to put the game in a stranglehold. That changed eight minutes before the break.
The visitors won a corner on the right. Van Persie sent it over to the far post and Gallas nodded home. It was a simple goal not worthy of greater description and yet West Ham’s defence had neither the wit nor wisdom to keep it out.
Upton Park was very quiet. It was clearly full of worried fans.
As if to confirm their superiority, Vermaelen roared down the left like a winger only to see his cross drift long and then Eboue weaved in from the right before testing Green with a low shot.
Arsenal went into the break with a considerable cushion.
The visitors were more subdued after the break. It was as if they were waiting for West Ham to test them.
Arshavin, who had been quiet until now, darted past his marker and fired a friendless cutback across goal. Just before the hour, Zola brought on Alessandro Diamanti. The Italian enlivened proceeds with a couple of dips from distance.
Fabregas did likewise shortly afterwards but his swerving effort drifted wide of the post at the last second.
Cole was still West Ham’s best hope. In the 65th minute, he swivelled six yards out before firing over the bar.
However Eboue fired behind from the acutest angle then, after Gael Clichy had blocked a shot from Zavon Hines, Arshavin forced a full-length save from Green with a trademark drive from 25 yards.
Arsenal were coasting and in control. But, as at Alkmaar, they were caught out. Diaby was adjudged to have fouled Hines 10 yards outside the area. Diamanti curled the ball towards the near post and Mannone could only parry the ball back into the area where Cole nodded home from close range.
Suddenly, it was game on again when Arsenal should have been home and dry.
West Ham had claims for a penalty almost immediately when Parker went through. But although Gallas hung out his leg, there appeared to be little contact.
With 11 minutes left, the home side did get their spot kick. Song was adjudged to have clipped Cole and Diamanti fired home the penalty.
West Ham now fancied the win and stormed forward. However, they were reduced to 10 men with six minutes left after Parker received his second yellow card.
The dismissal curtailed West Ham’s comeback and, in fact, it was Arsenal who had the best chance to steal the points.
Eboue crossed from the right and Van Persie’s diving header was somehow turned aside by Green.
It was the last act of a disappointing and sobering drama.
- Mannone Yellow Card
- Gallas Goal!
- Eboue 82 Yellow Card
- Fabregas (C)
- Diaby 87
- Persie Goal!
- Bendtner 82
- Eduardo 87
West Ham United
- Upson (C)
- Parker Yellow Card Red Card
- Franco 64
- Noble 56
- Behrami 90
- Collison Yellow Card
- Cole Goal!
- Kovac 90
- Hines 64 Yellow Card
- Diamanti 56 Goal!