By Richard Clarke at The Hawthorns
It was tense, it was tight - but it was ultimately successful.
Arsenal finally secured third place in the Premier League with a nail-biting 3-2 win at West Brom on a frantic final day of the 2011/12 season.
The last 90 minutes was a microcosm of the Gunners’ rollercoaster campaign and the decisive moment came when Laurent Koscielny prodded home from close-range just before the hour following a mistake from Marton Fulop.
The Hungarian keeper had been a late replacement for Ben Foster and it was his error in the fourth minute that allowed Yossi Benayoun to score into an empty net.
Then on the half-hour, a long-range shot from Andre Santos beat him at his near post.
In between those first two goals, James Morrision had set up an offside-looking Shane Long and then Graham Dorrans to put West Brom in front.
The finale was intense and nerve-wracking with Kieran Gibbs crucially sliding into stop Billy Jones scoring in injury time.
However Arsenal saw out the game and, in celebration, the players chaired departing assistant manager Pat Rice out to their supporters.
A touching moment for a superb servant to Arsenal Football Club.
It was fitting that Rice's team concluded the campaign with a performance based on the very commodity the Irishman has always exuded - cast-iron character in the face of adversity.
Hopefully Arsenal can kick-on to silverware next season without Rice. But third place is perfectly satisfactory for now.
It was always going to be a dramatic final afternoon with issue key issues remaining at the top, bottom and surrounding the European places.
Arsenal had the luxury of self-determinism. Victory this afternoon would secure third spot but its by-products – guaranteed entry to the Champions League Group Stages for the 15th successive season and a finish above near-neighbours Tottenham - were just as important.
Wenger’s side saw three changes. The elevation of Francis Coquelin was expected after Bacary Sagna broke his leg in last week’s draw with Norwich. But the younger Frenchman did not come in at right back. Instead he replaced Aaron Ramsey in midfield and Carl Jenkinson took the full-back berth. It was his first start since the home win over West Brom back in November.
The final swap saw Santos replace Gibbs on the other defensive flank. Theo Walcott was fit but only made the bench.
A victory for West Brom would provide them with a top-10 finish for the first time in the 20 years of the Premier League. Either way they were saying goodbye to manager Roy Hodgson before he left to take over the reins at England.
It was going to be a massive afternoon no matter what.
Arsenal could not have made a better start. Neither side had settled into any sort of rhythm before the visitors went ahead.
In the fourth minute, Benayoun chased a lost cause and the hesitancy of stand-in Fulop at the edge of his area allowed the Israeli to nudge the ball past the stranded keeper and tap home in the empty net.
It was massive moment and should have helped the away side settle. However, it did not and West Brom were level in the 11th minute – although the strike was marred by controversy.
Long appeared to be clearly offside when he race onto Morrison’s through ball. However, a flag to not come and the former Reading frontman buried his shot from just outside the area.
Four minutes later it got worse but this time Arsenal had to look at themselves.
Again Morrison provided the ball forward but Dorrans was afforded too much space to nod down and hook the bouncing ball in the same corner Long had found just before.
With Tottenham leading, Arsenal had it all to do.
In fairness they would dominate the remainder of the half territorially. The buzzing business of Tomas Rosicky and Benayoun kept winning the ball while Gervinho always offered an outlet.
Just before the half-hour, Robin van Persie was brought down just inches outside the area could only batter the wall from the free-kick.
The chance came as a result of sustained Arsenal pressure and it would soon brings its reward.
In the 30th minute, Santos stole the ball, weaved inside and let fly. Again Fulop could have done better but the ball went in off the post.
Arsenal now had some momentum but, despite sustaining pressure as before, they could not breakthrough.
In fact the third goal would arrive 10 minutes into the second half. Van Persie swung over a corner from the right and, under pressure from his defender Jonas Olsson, Fulop punched the ball towards his own net allowing Koscielny to stab the ball home from close range.
It had taken Arsenal 44 minutes to regain the lead and they just about deserved it.
However, West Brom would respond with perhaps their best period of the game so far. They forced a succession of corners and substitute Keith Andrews stung the hands of Wojciech Szczesny from distance.
Wenger had brought on Walcott for Rosicky at the break. Just before Andrews' effort, he reached the byline and clipped the ball back to Alex Song, whose drive was deflected wide.
But as the seconds ticked by, Arsenal began to look a little nervous and Hodgson’s substitutions suggested he was desperate to say goodbye with a win.
They poured forward until the final whistle and only a superb challenge from Gibbs stopped Jones scoring at the far post
It was a massive moment. It saved Arsenal’s season and ensured the Club can now look forward to Champions League football next term.
A breathless end to the ultimate rollercoaster campaign.
Referee: Michael Jones
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