By Richard Clarke
Alex Song powered home a last-gasp header to end Arsenal’s frustration at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
For 88 minutes, it seemed to be one of those afternoons for Arsène Wenger’s side. Although not at their best, they created a plethora of chances only to be kept at bay by a mixture of wayward finishing, bad luck and, most importantly, West Ham keeper Robert Green.
The England man made decent saves from Song and Sebastien Squillaci in the first half and even better stops from Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas in the latter period.
It looked like being enough until Gael Clichy angled in a cross from the left and Song stooped to crash home his fourth strike of the campaign.
The goal – and the points – kept Arsenal right up with the title pace.
Wenger’s men are still second and doing all they can at the moment. Of course they have not been faultless this season but they have won at tough grounds, beaten a title contender and built up a strong home record. Today they did something else - squeezed a result in tight circumstances when they were not so fluent.
They will have to do much more of the same to lift the Premier League trophy in May but dogged determination is a key part of any title-winning season.
And Arsenal displayed that in abundance this afternoon.
The heavens opened minutes before kick-off. It was a soggy end to a week that had given Arsenal inspiration and aspiration in equal measure.
They had won 3-0 at Manchester City last Sunday and followed that up with a 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle in the Carling Cup. For the latter game, Wenger had played a stronger side than usual but there were still significant changes.
Compared to the Eastlands game, Wenger made one alteration this afternoon. Laurent Koscielny replaced Johan Djourou to complete an all-French backline. Despite their midweek heroics, Theo Walcott, Wojciech Szczesny and Nicklas Bendtner were on the bench.
Jack Wilshere sat out the last game of his suspension. Robin van Persie (ankle) and Aaron Ramsey (leg) were not ready but are set to return to full training next week. Abou Diaby (ankle), Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) and Manuel Almunia (elbow) are a little further away from fitness.
This was a meeting of in-form versus no form, second top versus rock bottom. However you could not have told in the opening 15 minutes.
Yes, Arsenal had ample possession, threatening when Song nodded over and Arshavin’s shot was deflected wide.
However West Ham’s ambition was far above their League position. Mark Noble troubled Lukasz Fabianski into punching away a couple of free-kicks, Luis Boa More fired over and Frederic Piquionne made one jinking run to the byline that the keeper snuffed out.
The game was pacy and passionate enough but it was ‘bity’. By the midway point, neither side had really fashioned a ‘move’.
That changed in the 24th minute and it so nearly saw Arsenal take the lead.
Song threaded a ball through for the overlapping Bacary Sagna in the right-hand channel. He stretched to the byline and cut the ball back into the area towards Fabregas. The captain’s contact was good but Green threw himself to his right and plucked the ball out of the air.
The chance changed nothing. Arsenal were on top but there was a tension in their game. West Ham seemingly sensed that and broke with invention.
Nine minutes from the break, Noble raced clear once again and thundered a shot into the chest of Fabianski.
Just before the whistle, Song exchanged passes with Fabregas on the right of the area but the Cameroonian’s low shot was blocked by Green. From the resulting corner, Squillaci saw his header was tipped over the bar.
It was stale-mate for Arsenal at the break. Wenger’s men had been out of sorts but, in fairness, West Ham had done their best to put them in that position.
There was a general unease at Emirates Stadium as the team went into the tunnel.
However Arsenal would emerge for the second half with much more purpose. In the opening minutes, Arshavin dragged a shot across the face of goal and then Nasri looked to extend the best scoring run of his career by smashing a drive against the bar from 25 yards.
The home side were trying to up the ante.
Just before the hour, Fabregas and Denilson both saw shots blocked in a frantic ping-pong passage of play on the edge of the West Ham area. The Spaniard’s drive thundered straight into the face of Scott Parker, who needed a few minutes of treatment before he recovered.
Midway through the half, Arsenal won a free-kick and Wenger took the opportunity to bring on Walcott. After the ovation had died down, Arshavin floated in the ball and, for once, Chamakh could not convert his header when well-placed.
However Walcott would soon make his mark.
Fabregas swivelled a wonderful pass into his path on the right wing. The England winger roared clear of his marker to face Green. His low cross-shot beat the keeper’s outstretched right hand, hit the base of the post and then bounced back into the grateful arms of the West Ham No 1. A huge let-off.
The second half had been much more one-sided than the first. But West Ham were still prepared to chance to their arm.
In the 74th minute, Manuel da Costa’s powerful downward header was clutched among the flailing legs but Fabianski.
Shortly afterwards, only Clichy’s cover header prevented Valon Behrami converting a left-wing from Herita Ilunga.
Those chances prompted Wenger to throw on Bendtner. Arshavin made way.
Eight minutes from time, Green made another super save, this time from Walcott’s deflected drive.
The England keeper made another fine stop shortly afterwards when he turned aside a close-range shot from Fabregas.
It seemed that Green would be Arsenal’s tormentor until Clichy’s cross found Song.
It was a rapturous finish to a game that had seemed to be slipping from Arsenal’s grasp.
Referee: Mike Jones
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