By Nik Brumsack at Upton Park
Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck were on target as Arsenal finished 2014 with a well-earned 2-1 victory at West Ham United on Sunday afternoon.
After a closely-fought opening 40 minutes, the Gunners took control of this fiercely-contested fixture with two goals just before the break.
First, Cazorla dusted himself down to convert from the penalty spot after he had been felled by Winston Reid inside the area.
Then, three minutes later, Welbeck extended the lead, sliding home Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pinpoint low cross.
Cheikhou Kouyate pulled a goal back with a header nine minutes after the break, but Arsenal continued to threaten and were good value for this away victory.
Arsene Wenger had praised his side for the “combination of class and resilience” they displayed in the Boxing Day victory over Queens Park Rangers. This was a similar performance.
Against a West Ham United side that have impressed many this season, Arsenal defended well when they needed to, were not bullied in midfield and had the class in attack to secure an important three points.
SETTING THE SCENE
It came as no surprise that Wenger made changes to his team for a second London derby in less than 48 hours. In came Laurent Koscielny, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Francis Coquelin - for a first league start since January 2013, with Kieran Gibbs, Tomas Rosicky and the suspended Olivier Giroud the men to make way.
West Ham entered this fixture as one of the season’s success stories. Sam Allardyce’s side had already amassed 31 points before kick-off - more than at this stage of any other Premier League season. Arsenal loanee Carl Jenkinson was ineligible to play against his parent club, but Alex Song - who made 204 appearances during his seven-year stay in north London - lined up as captain at the base of the hosts’ midfield diamond.
Allardyce’s team have particularly impressed at home of late. The Hammers had won six of their previous seven home league games, but were without a win against Arsenal in their last 12 attempts, losing the last seven.
West Ham quickly set about changing that statistic in the early stages. And after a robust and committed opening, the hosts thought they had taken the lead.
Morgan Amalfitano’s sixth-minute corner was whipped in but cleared by Koscielny. The ball fell perfectly for Song who, from 20 yards, speculatively volleyed past the unsighted Wojciech Szczesny into the bottom corner. The Cameroon international wheeled away in jubilation but his celebrations were curtailed by the linesman, who deemed Andy Carroll to have obstructed the goalkeeper’s view from an offside position.
Sakho had a half-hearted appeal for a penalty waved away before Arsenal got into the groove.
As has so often been the case during his debut season, Alexis Sanchez was the instigator. Robbing Song halfway inside the Arsenal half, the Chilean burst forward. He exchanged passes with Oxlade-Chamberlain but was denied by Joey O’Brien’s important last-ditch tackle.
In an end-to-end opening 15 minutes, Alexis then met Cazorla’s inswinging free-kick, but was unable to direct the ball into the path of the waiting Danny Welbeck.
Arsenal had dealt with West Ham’s direct approach with confidence and purpose. The first warning sign came after 20 minutes, when Carroll muscled Mathieu Debuchy off the ball before whipping a ball across the face of the goal, which Koscielny had to clear ahead of Sakho.
James Tomkins then volleyed a good chance over on the volley before Arsenal took charge of proceedings just before the break.
First, Cazorla wriggled his way into the box. Reid initially stopped the diminutive playmaker but, after his clearance ricocheted against Cazorla, the defender then brought down the Spaniard as he advanced on goal.
The referee rightly pointed to the spot and Cazorla converted emphatically, sending Adrian the wrong way.
West Ham were rattled and found themselves two goals behind on the stroke of half-time. Debuchy took a throw in quickly and combined with Cazorla before freeing Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose drilled low cross was slid home by Welbeck.
This was a thoroughly convincing end to what had largely been an even first 45 minutes. It could have got even better too - Alexis’ stoppage-time effort looked designed for the net before Song’s leg deflected the ball wide.
It took West Ham just nine minutes after the restart to reignite the game. Seconds after Per Mertesacker had expertly cleared a dangerous centre from under his own crossbar, Tomkins - up for the resulting corner - jinked his way to the byline. He stood his cross up for Kouyate, who climbed above Debuchy to plant a header into the corner.
Arsenal’s response was positive. Oxlade-Chamberlain, a constant threat on the counter, charged forwards before teeing up Cazorla 20 yards out. The eventual shot was hard and firm but Adrian was equal to it and unconventionally parried the ball away.
Chances continued to come at both ends. Debuchy nodded a corner just over, then Sakho was inches away from connecting with Kouyate’s curling cross.
The hosts continued to probe but Arsenal repelled the vast majority of attacks confidently. In fact, the increasingly open nature of the game suited the Gunners, who continued to make chances on the counter-attack.
It took a series of excellent saves from Adrian to keep them at bay. He somehow got his right foot to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s powerful close-range diving header, and used the same part of his body to keep out Alexis’ toe-poke just two minutes later.
Arsenal were on top but just couldn’t make the points safe. Welbeck spurned a clear opportunity, capitalising on a loose pass but firing over when clean through. Then Adrian again saved well, this time from Cazorla, before Oxlade-Chamberlain shot wide on the break.
West Ham did ramp up the pressure in the closing stages. Substitute Kevin Nolan had a shot well held by Szczesny, Morgan Amalfitano went down under Kieran Gibbs' challenge before Enner Valencia headed over from inside the six-yard box with the last action of the game. But Arsenal had done enough and deservedly held out.
This was the perfect way to bring down the curtain on what has been a memorable year. Now Wenger will hope his team can start 2015 in the same way as they finished 2014 - with victory, at Southampton on New Year’s Day.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
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