By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s battle for third place in the Premier League took a dramatic twist after they were held to a 3-3 draw by Norwich City at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
In a stunning, see-sawing afternoon, the home side led after 65 seconds through Yossi Benayoun but were trailing 2-1 by the half-hour.
Robin van Persie’s late brace seemed to have given them a vital victory. However, five minutes from time, substitute Steve Morison steered home a low shot to pinch the visitors a point.
It means Arsenal are now two points clear of Tottenham and Newcastle, however, Arsène Wenger’s side have only one game left this season. The others have two.
This battle is going to go down to the wire.
There was a slightly strange feel about this game before kick-off. Nothing to do with Arsenal or their need for three points, it was just that this was FA Cup final day and the weather was Autumnal, not the early-summer sunshine that normally greets English football’s showpiece.
For only the third time this season, Wenger’s side was unchanged. It meant a ninth Premier League start for Benayoun, a player who had been increasingly influential in the final quarter of the season.
After the draw with Stoke, the Israeli had spoken of his desire to relish both his 32nd birthday and potentially his last home game for Arsenal.
It took him just over a minute.
Benayoun collected the ball on the corner of the area, dipped his shoulder to create some space and curled a gorgeous shot high into the far corner of the net.
It was a luxurious goal – and just what Arsenal required.
However, the home side could not build on it and Norwich would be level 11 minutes later.
Shortly afterwards, Jonathan Howson found space on the overlap down the right-hand side. His cross was fired low towards Szczesny by Hoolahan and the keeper could only fumble the ball over the line at the near post.
The visitors had been a credit the Premier League all season and, on the balance of play, they were worth their equaliser.
However the 27th-minute goal that put them ahead was fortunate. Norwich broke quickly following an Arsenal corner and Holt’s shot hit Gibbs before floating over the helpless Szczesny.
A huge, huge blow.
Van Persie was inches away from Bacary Sagna’s low cross shortly afterwards as Arsenal began their pursuit of the game. It would be the Frenchman’s last meaningful contribution as, just past the half hour, he went down in pain and was stretchered off. Francis Coquelin came on.
Nine minutes from the break, Gervinho weaved his way through on the left and Gibbs trickled a shot just wide.
On the whistle, Van Persie tried to squeeze home a shot from an acute angle. Ruddy blocked his effort and Russell Martin booted away the loose ball.
However, in injury time, only a superb challenge from Koscielny prevented Holt from adding a third.
It had been a horrible first half for Arsenal and you felt their pursuit of third place rested on an improvement.
In fairness the home side created persistent pressure after the restart but, apart from Van Persie’s ball across a gaping goal, they could did not trouble Ruddy.
The clearest opportunity would go to Simeon Jackson, who beat Vermaelen but then fired meekly at Szczesny.
Just before the hour, Benayoun met Rosicky’s curling free-kick but Ruddy clutched the ball on the line.
The game was now wide open. Arsenal had to make it that way as they needed goals but the process allowed Norwich opportunities.
Hoolahan went through and scuffed a shot wide. Then Arsenal went straight down the other end and Benayoun set up Van Persie, whose shot was saved by the legs of Ruddy. Gervinho collected the rebound but Aaron Ramsey could not convert his cross.
Just past the hour, Wenger brought on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Ramsey. Later, Marouane Chamakh would replace Benayoun.
Arsenal now had one thought on their mind. In between the substitutions, Vermaelen’s shot had been blocked and Rosicky had hacked the rebound wide.
For the first time, the home side had built up momentum and Norwich were feeling it. Eighteen minutes from time, they drew level.
Chamakh’s shot was blocked but the rebound came out to Alex Song. As so often this season, the midfielder chipped the ball to Van Persie, who fired home his 29th Premier League goal of the season.
A game that had crackled throughout suddenly caught light. Norwich went in their shell a little while Arsenal started to win midfield battles.
It brought a goal 10 minutes from time. Rosicky tried to nudge Van Persie through on the right of the area. Via a deflection, the ball sat nicely for the Dutchman who slid home his second of the afternoon and his 30th in the League, equalling Thierry Henry's Club record.
Emirates Stadium was now alight and Arsenal still had to see the game out.
However, Norwich had not given up and, five minutes from time, they proved it when Morison escaped on the right and arrowed his cross-shot just inside the far post.
Another twist in an incredible, if gut-wrenching, game.
Van Persie might have responded immediately when Rosicky sent him clear. However, Ruddy saved with his legs.
In the final minute, Arsenal had strong claims for a penalty when Van Persie appeared to be bundled over by Kyle Naughton at the far post when he seemed certain to convert.
Song’s late backheel was booted away by Ruddy as the home side frantically fought for a winner.
However, they could not conjure up a conclusive goal this afternoon.
Arsenal's battle for third place will go down to the final day.
- Sagna 33
- Vermaelen Yellow Card
- Ramsey 63 Yellow Card
- Benayoun 69 Goal!
- Persie (C) Goal! Goal!
- Coquelin 33
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 63
- Chamakh 69
- Hoolahan 75 Goal! Yellow Card
- Jackson 69 Yellow Card
- Holt 81 Goal!
- Wilbraham 81 Yellow Card
- Pilkington 75
- Morison 69 Goal!