By Richard Clarke at Craven Cottage
Arsenal will finish the 2010/11 Premier League season in fourth place.
Arsène Wenger’s side went into the final day hoping to sneak back above Manchester City but, in the end, only plundered a point thanks to Theo Walcott’s 89th-minute equaliser. And even that was irrelevant as Roberto Mancini’s men won at Bolton.
Steve Sidwell gave the home side the lead midway through the first half only for Robin van Persie to grab an excellent equaliser three minutes later.
Fulham took control after the break and deservedly regained the lead when Bobby Zamora nodded home from close range. However, the game changed when Zoltan Gera was sent off for a reckless foul on Thomas Vermaelen.
It handed the impetus to Arsenal and, just before the whistle, Walcott fired beyond Mark Schwarzer to preserve a point.
The draw was just about fair but it was not enough to bring that Champions League group spot.
However the point of a League competition is that it reflects your standard over the longer term - and
Wenger’s side are where they are. It could have been a lot better, it could have been worse.
But we all hope it will improve next term.
There was an overwhelming end-of-season feel to this game but, in fact, both sides had something at stake.
Arsenal’s target was clear while Fulham needed to win here and see Chelsea beat Everton in order to record their joint highest placing in the top flight.
It was a blustery day in west London and the swirling wind would affect the first half.
Fulham were lively in the opening stages but their main ploy seemed to involve clipping lofted passes over the Arsenal backline. It troubled the visitors but the tactic was a little 'scattergun' on such a windy day.
The home side had the territorial advantage but did little with it. In fact, despite their pressure, it was Arsenal who created the first clear-cut chance.
In the 18th minute, Bacary Sagna curled a ball to the far post where Kieran Gibbs produced a towering header that forced a fine save out of Schwarzer.
Given their aerial attacks, it was ironic that Fulham went ahead with a slick move on the floor.
In the 26th minute, Zamora escaped on the right and cut the ball back for Sidwell. The Fulham midfielder punished his old side by slotting a simple goal past Wojciech Szczesny.
It was typical of Arsenal in the past couple of months but this afternoon they were level within three minutes.
Abou Diaby won the ball just inside the Arsenal half, slipped past his marker and exchanged passes with Marouane Chamakh before firing a low pass towards Van Persie in the area. The Dutchman’s control was instant and he slipped a shot past Schwarzer.
It was his 18th goal since January 1 in the Premier League season, equaling the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry. It was also the ninth consecutive Premier League away game in which he has scored.
Seven minutes from half time, Arsenal had a huge let off. Danny Murphy bundled through and his miskick put off Szczesny sufficiently that the ball went through the keeper and trickled towards the line.
Fortunately Vermaelen rushed back and hooked the bobbling ball just past the far post. It was type of defending Arsenal had missed throughout most of the past season.
Just before half-time, Manchester City went ahead at Bolton. If it stayed that way, they would secure third place no matter what Arsenal achieved at Craven Cottage.
They started well enough when Samir Nasri’s free-kick had to be pawed away by the stretching Schwarzer. However, after that, Fulham built up a head of steam and, in the 57th minute, took the lead once more.
Jonathan Greening drove to the byline and clipped a cross to the near post. Zamora rose above Vermaelen to steer home a header.
You could hardly argue with the goal. Overall Arsenal had started the second half in their shell and had been punished.
They nearly got on level terms immediately when Schwarzer spilled Van Persie’s cross into the path of Chamakh. The Moroccan’s first-time effort went just wide.
However Wenger knew his side needed a shake up. So, in the 64th minute, Gibbs, Diaby and Aaron Ramsey came off. Andrey Arshavin, Emmanuel Eboue and Walcott went on.
Simon Davies prodded the ball past the post after confusion in the Arsenal defence. It seemed that Fulham were going to cruise home.
However, 16 minutes from time, Gera was sent off. The Hungarian had only come off the bench four minutes earlier but, after going in two-footed on Vermaelen, referee Martin Atkinson had no choice to show the red card.
It handed the initiative to Arsenal and they nearly equalised when Arshavin drove past the far post after Fulham failed to clear their lines from a corner. Then, seven minutes from the end, Vermaelen headed over.
The dismissal had changed the game and the visitors were in control. A minute from time, Walcott powered down the right and his shot bounced off the inside of the far post before bobbling into the opposite side of the net.
In the end it meant nothing - Manchester City were in control at Bolton and would win 2-0 - but at least it avoided defeat.
To be honest, Wenger’s side needed the end of the season a few games ago.
Now it has arrived, they have the summer to rebuild.
- Gibbs 64
- Diaby 64
- Ramsey 64
- van Persie Goal! Yellow Card
- Eboue 64
- Walcott 64 Goal!
- Arshavin 64
- Briggs 65
- Sidwell Goal! Yellow Card
- Murphy 65
- Greening Yellow Card
- Zamora 70 Goal!
- Etuhu 65
- Davies 65
- Gera 70 Red Card