By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal ended 2011 in the top four of the Premier League thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win over QPR at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
The crucial goal came on the hour when Robin van Persie swept home a delightful through ball from Andrey Arshavin.
It was the Dutchman’s 35th Premier League goal of the year – one above the Arsenal record of the watching Thierry Henry but one short of Alan Shearer’s competition best.
This afternoon, however, it was enough.
Until Van Persie’s strike, this looked like déjà vu all over again. Like Wolves four days earlier, QPR started well but they were soon overrun by Arsenal, who might have bagged the points by half time.
They got their win but, in truth, Wenger’s side were never comfortable this afternoon against another well-organised, determined side fresh from the Championship. However, while Arsenal were seeing out this vital, vital win, Chelsea were letting in late goals to lose against Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge.
It all means Arsenal have a two-point cushion in fourth.
A comfortable way to reach the halfway point of the campaign.
There were three changes from the side that was held to that 1-1 by Wolves. Theo Walcott had recovered from illness while Arshavin started his first Premier League game for more than a month. Gervinho and Yossi Benayoun dropped to bench. The other change saw Aaron Ramsey return to central midfield at the expense of Tomas Rosicky.
Due to injuries at full-back, Arsenal had four centre halves strung across their defence once more. Just before kick-off, one of the Club’s greatest exponents in that particular position – Tony Adams – was presented to the crowd. The former captain was here to view the newly-unveiled statue of him at the northern end of the ground.
Adams had played in the last fixture between the sides – a 6-0 Arsenal win at Loftus Road in the FA Cup 10 years ago. QPR were during well in the first foray into the top-flight since then but came into this game on a bad run.
However Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat at home to Blackburn had finished around half an hour before kick-off. It proved the point Wenger had made pre-match – that the Premier League was in the middle of an unpredictable spell.
And QPR fancied their chances in the early exchanges this afternoon. In the opening minutes, Adel Taarabt prodded Shaun Wright-Phillips through on the left of the area. Wojciech Szczesny raced out to make a fine block. Before that the Pole had saved a long-range effort from Jay Bothroyd.
It took Arsenal a full 15 minutes to muster an attacking opportunity. Van Persie turned Matthew Connolly inside out on the right before flicking a shot across goal. Radek Cerny gathered with ease.
The keeper was more concerned when the Dutchman met Ramsey’s left-wing cross with a backpeddling header shortly afterwards. Unfortunately for Arsenal, it drifted wide.
Djourou danced through a couple of tackles in midfield before finding Van Persie on the left of the area. The captain muscled past Luke Young, but in dinking his effort over Cerny, he also lifted the ball over the bar.
Arsenal had taken the tempo to a different level now. Walcott wastefully fired wide after Laurent Koscielny won Van Persie’s free-kick in the air. Then, on the half-hour, the Dutchman did wonderfully well to get round the other side of Connolly and collect Vermaelen’s curling through ball. However, he cracked his effort over the bar.
Arsenal had a claim for a penalty when Koscielny met Van Persie’s corner with a fierce drive. It certainly cannoned off the arms of the flying Young but it had been hit with pace and the QPR defender was only a couple of yards away when the ball was struck.
Three minutes from half-time, Arteta was convinced his left-wing cross had brushed the arm of Barton en route to the box. Given the QPR captain was much further away than Young, Arsenal probably had more of a case.
As the minutes ticked away, Ramsey and Arteta powered in thunderous drives from distance – the former was deflected wide, the latter was blocked by Cerny.
At half time the feeling was a familiar frustration. As against Wolves, Arsenal were peppering their opponent’s goal. As against Wolves, the game was deadlocked.
And, as in the first half, QPR were the better side in the opening exchanges of the second period. Szczesny had to save from Taarabt’s dangerous cross and then Alejandro Faulin’s follow-up. Koscielny flew in to block a low cross from Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Just before the hour mark, Arsenal lost a key player and then nearly found the lead.
Francis Coquelin replaced Vermaelen at left back; an alien position for the central midfielder. Shortly afterwards Ramsey sent Walcott darting through in acres of space but the England winger pulled his shot past the post.
The game was being stretched now as QPR’s ambitions began to grow. You sensed it might play into Arsenal’s hands.
On the hour, Arshavin weighted a clever ball into the left-hand channel and Van Persie sidefooted home a left-foot shot. It was Arsenal’s 50th goal of the season and a record-breaker for him.
Arshavin’s contribution had been key and the Russian would have added an immediate second from Alex Song’s cut-back had Young not timed his challenge to perfection.
However, QPR were not spent yet and Szczesny had to make a scruffy but crucial save from Taarabt’s cross-shot. Then Connolly fired over from close range.
The visitors were now pushing forward at every opportunity and it was Arsenal who were looking to counter. Ramsey fired over then Gervinho came on for Walcott and spurned two chances – the first after a solo run, the second from Van Persie’s cut-back.
The expected final flurry from the visitors did not really materialise. Gervinho and Rosicky both had half-chances that squeezed the life out of the visitors as the seconds ticked away.
Arsenal were relieved at the whistle but they had the points that will allow them to fully enjoy their New Year celebrations this evening.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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