By Richard Clarke
Played 38, Won 20, Drawn 12, Lost 6, Points 72 – that is the sum of Arsenal’s Premier League season.
Arsène Wenger side ended their campaign with a heartening 4-1 win over Stoke City on Sunday at Emirates Stadium.
Robin van Persie was involved in all four goals. On 10 minutes, he passed to Cesc Fabregas and the Spaniard’s cross was turned in by James Beattie. Six minutes later, the Dutchman scored from a penalty after being felled by Ryan Shawcross as he weaved into the area.
In the 18th minute Abou Diaby nodded home his free-kick. Then, after Ricardo Fuller had reduced the arrears from the spot, Van Persie intercepted Rory Delap’s header back to his keeper and thumped home from close range.
The second half could not quite keep pace with the first but this was a decent send-off for a season that has never quite lived up to its potential.
Still in the final stages the crowd were doing a Mexican wave and singing songs of support for Wenger.
Precisely 2,127,604 fans have filed through the turnstiles of Emirates Stadium this season and, on the strength of the atmosphere today, they will be back next season.
Hopefully by then there will be some silverware to celebrate too.
Summer had most certainly arrived in North London this afternoon but Wenger’s side was not affected by endofseasonitis. It was full strength with the exception of the goalkeeper. Manuel Almunia (knee) had long since been sidelined for the season but the absence of Lukaz Fabianski was a surprise.
On Thursday Wenger had suggested the Pole may be missing with a knee injury but at Friday’s press conference he suggested the keeper would be fine. In fact he missed out and Vito Mannone, 21, came in for his debut.
Having humbled Arsenal 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium in November, Stoke were bidding to become the only side in the 2008-09 season to beat Wenger’s men home and away. It was never on today. In fact, within 18 minutes they were 3-0 down and had lost their keeper.
Unshackled from competition, Arsenal played with an unbridled freedom. It was nice to see after the disappointments of the last month.
The opening goal came in the 10th minute. Van Persie tucked a pass into Fabregas on the right-hand byline, his low cross was turned in by Beattie at the near post.
The second came hot on its heels when Van Persie nutmegged Ryan Shawcross only to be brought down by the defender’s trailing leg. The Dutchman picked himself up to fire home from the spot – his 18th goal of the season.
Two minutes later Van Persie curled over a lovely free-kick and Diaby rose imperiously to nod home a third.
The scoreline was deserved. Arsenal were a bulldozer of a side this afternoon.
Soon afterwards Stoke keeper Steve Simonsen came off. You could not have blamed him for just jacking the job in today however, in reality, the former Everton stopper seemed to have an injury. Thomas Sorensen came on.
Mannone made a low save from Beattie’s free-kick then, just past the half-hour, Denilson tripped Fuller as he darted into the area. The Stoke striker scored from the spot.
However it was the merest of ripples in the face of a tidal wave. Andrey Arshavin stung the hands of Sorenson, Theo Walcott let fly with a low effort and Kieran Gibbs headed over.
Back in November Stoke had bullied their way to three deserved points – today they were being sliced apart by an Arsenal side who seemed a thousand times more controlled.
Four minutes before the break Delap tried to nod the ball back to his keeper only for Van Persie to intercept and send a swivelling shot past Sorenson.
Arsenal went into the interval with a bounce in their stride while at the same time wondering what might have been had they played like this earlier in the campaign.
Van Persie, on a hat-trick, whistled an effort just wide at the start of the second half and Bacary Sagna rifled an effort over on the hour.
By now Wenger was making changes. Nicklas Bendtner had come on for Walcott at the break. Sagna’s effort on goal was his last of contribution of the season, seconds afterwards he was replaced by Emmanuel Eboue.
The game had lost a little of its first-half lustre but then few games, let alone meaningless end-of-season affairs, could maintain that standard for an entire 90 minutes.
In the 62nd minute, Bendtner and Diaby set up Van Persie for his treble at the far post but the sliding Dutchman could only fire high and wide.
Arsenal kept going forward until the end and peppered the Stoke goal with speculative efforts. But they seemed to have satisfied themselves with their first-half performance, meanwhile the visitors seemed happy enough with their situation. Certainly their fans were singing their hearts out. Not surprising given that they came into this game 11th and well clear of the relegation scrap.
In injury time, Vela danced through and saw a shot bounce off Sorensen’s legs. It was the last effort of the campaign.
The players and management appeared for a lap of thanks. It was wonderfully received by the fans.
This will not go down as a vintage Arsenal campaign but the base levels – hearty entertainment and Champions League qualification – were achieved.
The job now is to build on this for next season.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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