2008/09 has now come and gone.
It was put to an end in resounding fashion today courtesy of a virtuoso season sign-off from top scorer Robin van Persie.
The Dutchman had a hand in every single Arsenal as Stoke City studied revenge lesson when they came back to town.
Arsene Wenger’s flirtation with Real Madrid, which followed the rough treatment he received from a section of the Arsenal shareholders, had the desired effect as the sometimes silent Emirates Stadium majority pipped up to leave the manager in no doubt as to their true feelings.
The fans had marched en masse to the ground, singing Wenger’s name and the banners that they stuck up around the upper tier reinforced their message. ‘Thirteen years and still the man’. ‘Arsene; on t’aime toujours’.
It is unusual to see semi-colons on such banners, but these are sanitised times and stage management is a club speciality. The scrawled message of support on a white bed sheet for Emmanuel Adebayor, the injured striker, who might leave in the summer, appeared out of step, almost a throw-back.
The Gunners went ahead in the 10th minute from an own goal by James Beattie.
The Stoke striker was making his 300th career Premier League appearance, but was not celebrating when he turned in Cesc Fabregas’ cross from the right flank past his own goalkeeper.
Stoke’s heads dropped further four minutes later when Robin van Persie converted a penalty with clinical precision after he was brought down by Ryan Shawcross.
Abou Diaby made it 3-0 when he rose highest to head home powerfully from van Persie’s perfectly flighted free-kick.
The Gunners were enjoying themselves and substitute keeper Thomas Sorensen was tested in the 27th minute by a fierce Diaby shot and then got his outstretched boot to the ball to deny Theo Walcott three minutes later.
At the other end, rookie keeper Vito Mannone got his eye in with a fine save from a Beattie free-kick.
There was little he could do however in the 31st minute when he was sent the wrong way from the penalty spot by Ricardo Fuller after he had been brought down by a needless Kolo Toure challenge.
Van Persie came close to an immediate response but his rocket of a free-kick cannoned back of the crossbar and Sorensen was on hand to palm away Andrey Arshavin’s overhead kick form the rebound.
Sorensen denied the Russian again in the 38th minute after he let fly with a shot that the Stoke keeper gathered in mid-air.
Van Persie made it 4-1 four minutes before half time when he fired in an overhead kick when beyond the Stoke rearguard but onside as a consequence of the ball being headed to him by Rory Delap.
The Gunners continued to dominate in the second half and could have gone further ahead just after the hour when van Persie was fed by Fabregas, but Sorensen bravely smothered the ball.
Sorensen was well beaten when Diaby met Emmanuel Eboue’s precise cross from the right but his glanced header bounced inches wide of the right post.
That was the extent of the action as Stoke packed their defence and the Gunners seemed happy to pass the ball around in pretty triangles.
By Randy Osae
Arsenal managed to match the Premier League champions today through a compelling 0-0 draw which was nothing but a mutual conclusion for either side at Old Trafford.
Manchester United had yet again scaled new heights while Arsene Wenger’s men retained their dignity which may promise a more competitive tilt next season for the crown their opponents have seized for three years now.
For a side which had allowed seven goals in two home encounters at the expense of the fiercest of rivals, Arsenal did defy the odds today for many who went for nothing but another vintage 90 minutes for United.
Surely, those vintage times will balance back to north London soon.
Arsenal were up for it today. And playing out the last “big game” of the season, Arshavin went on one mazy dribble from the left flank that would have opened United up had Jonny Evans not raced across to clear.
The former Zenit St Petersburg star was also the provider of a cross lone striker Robin van Persie might easily have steered into the net, rather than just over.
The hosts certainly started as if they meant business with Darren Fletcher almost sending Cristiano Ronaldo through inside the opening minute.
Yet, as time wore on, it seemed Ferguson’s side were adopting a pragmatic approach to the situation, ensuring their goal was tight and secure, pushing forward in numbers only when really necessary.
The energy of Carlos Tevez helped in that regard. Sometimes it seems the South American is doing the work of two men.
There has, of course, never been any discussion over Wayne Rooney.
Had voting for the various player of the year awards been based on the last two or three months’ form alone, Rooney would have been top of the pile.
The England striker has added an extra level of consistency to his game that truly deserves him now to be ranked if not at the very top of the game, then only just underneath.
Rooney stole in behind Bacary Sagna to head a teasing Michael Carrick cross wide after earlier having an effort deflected away by Kolo Toure.
On the brink of his 11th championship, Ryan Giggs curled a free-kick over and was then off target with a volley.
Ronaldo had an even better opportunity at the start of the second period after Tevez had failed to manage a shot after Carrick had supplied the cross, but did enough to nudge it into the Portugal superstar’s path. However, he leant back and skied a shot into the Stretford End.
Ronaldo then sent one his trademark free-kicks whipping wide. It marked the end of United’s attacking intent.
Fabregas and Van Persie had one last shot at spoiling the party. But with the trophy ready and the tickets sorted, it seemed a shame to stop it.
By Randy Osae
For the second time in a week, Arsenal were humiliated on home patch as a result of been outgunned rather than outplayed.
Ludicrous defending and profligate attacking scripted the story as Chelsea eased to a demoralizing 1-4 thumping – ending a sequence of a 21-game unbeaten league run by Arsenal.
Again, Wenger and his men took another harsh lesson on their football’s formula and as far as weeks go, this one might have conveyed the towering bridge between Arsenal and their once arch-rivals among the Premier League’s elite.
They will have to clarify that notion next season.
As Wenger will say; they will have to come back stronger.
And they seemed to have come back stronger from the distress of midweek when the first 27 minutes of today narrated nothing but typical Arsenal cruise control.
They had glued the ball to their feet, piling back-foot pressure on Chelsea and spurning chances right at the mouth of goal until…until…deja vu.
Fabregas fouled Drogba from a similar area to where Ronaldo stunned on Tuesday. Chelsea’s Ivorian did not aim at Arsenal’s stopper though. He floated the ball onto Alex’s head and through the help of the crossbar, Fabianski was beaten anyway.
Sometimes life does not cease to be cruel, and despite Arsenal’s perseverance, they would go into the interval 2-0 down…again.
Anelka burst through and whipped a 25-yard effort through the hosts’ back line and beyond Fabianski’s stretch on 39 minutes.
Same old story.
Arsenal’s goalkeeper denied the former Gunner from registering Chelsea’s third right before the break but despite half-time’s rest of momentum, the blues still had 0-3 coming.
Minutes into the second-half, Cole spearheaded a surge from the left which frightened Kolo Toure. And with Fabianski equally anxious to prevent Drogba from turning home the low cross, the Ivorian attempted to swiftly clear the ball to safety.
But it was a naive attempt. And the ball rolled into his own net.
The curtains were closing but the second-half had only began. So there had to be some sort of response from Arsenal to make this match worth the watch at least.
Indeed, they could have made it a classic.
Van Persie hesitated to finish off a clear-cut opportunity before Walcott somehow missed the goal’s far corner from no man’s land.
It was sickening for Wenger as indeed the majority still keeping faith, and so Diaby, Song and Walcott were withdrawn for Bendtner, Adebayor and Denilson respectively.
No other substitute had been itching to participate more than Bendtner did. After the Dane’s shameful night-club antics days ago, he knew this was best time to make fans forgive and forget.
And he did his fair share by thumping a header past Cech on 70 minutes to cause many daring to dream of a comeback which he nearly single-handedly forced with another tempting header from that same area later on.
Van Persie also tested Cech with his head, before Silvestre scrambled and missed from point-blank range.
A second goal and Arsenal surely would be turning the tables.
It could have been gifted had the referee rewarded Adebayor’s somehow foul/ somehow dive around Cech. But immediately after, Chelsea concluded this horrible story.
They moved again towards the other end and penetrated Arsenal’s faint wall again. Malouda was one-on-one with Fabianski but failed to score and after Anelka rebounded onto the post and back into his way, he poked it home.
By Randy Osae
Intentions of resurgence were undone within the initial 11 minutes of this second-leg courtesy of Park’s fluke and Ronaldo’s stunners. It was none more than a bitter reward to the rosy paid customers at the Emirates Stadium.
It will not be spring time in Rome for Arsenal who had looked destined for a return trip on their last visit.
Life must certainly go on, but the wait for silverware will also go on.
There was just something extraordinary about tonight from start to finish. Never had Arsenal been as self-assured in a build-up before. The Emirates Stadium was emulating the Anfields and San Siros.
Every attendant found a flag on his/her seat and as they waved them, famous chants were recited. It had the makings of a night at one of European football’s shrines.
The men on the pitch had even more adrenaline flowing through their bodies and Arsenal’s football was in fluid manner as well.
It resembled how United made use of comfort territory almost a week ago, but – for something Wenger’s men lacked that night – the mancunians rather had a sucker-punch in them.
On their first sniff at goal, Ronaldo provided an obliged cut-back into Arsenal’s area, and instead of dealing coolly, makeshift left-back Kierran Gibbs’ nerves got the better of him. He slipped, Park latched in and Almunia was haplessly beaten.
The Emirates was shell-shocked. Their once electrified voices were switched off and before Arsenal attempted to pick up the pieces, they were torn apart.
Van Persie fouled Ronaldo and from over 35 yards out, the Portuguese managed to let fly and bend his free-kick home.
All over 60,000 present – whether red devil or gooner – had been quietened by the unlikely outcomes of open play and of course, brilliance.
With only 15 minutes gone, Arsenal needed four goals to go through. But there were still badges hanging around reading; “Keep the faith”, and Rooney nearly made it mission impossible – if it had not already been – when he curled a shot on target for the low bottom corner only for Almunia’s finger tips to deny.
At this point, the majority including Wenger himself had been bemused. Their pondering faces spoke in volumes, but to be fair, the players might have hidden their distraught professionally.
Arsenal did not change their tempo with Robin van Persie seeming most desperate. Wenger went back to the drawing board at half-time and realized the occasion was too tense for the sake of young Gibbs and so Eboue stepped in.
The home side kept giving their all and as a result, were left bare at the back. Ronaldo warned once by testing Almunia down low and when he attempted again, Arsenal were humiliated again.
United counter-attacked Arsenal with Rooney the architect before Ronaldo finished off the art piece with a well-taken slot past Almunia.
Van Persie tried his best to keep Van der Sar busy, and Bendtner who had immediately replaced Walcott, hit the sidenetting also.
Arsenal were only chasing their dignity now and when Fabregas was thwarted by Fletcher in a goal-scoring opportunity, the Scot was sent off and Van Persie installed some respect on the score board – stabbing home the spot-kick.
Wenger sought more consolation as Vela replaced Arsenal’s only goal-scorer. With more numbers on the pitch but vastly decreasing in the stands, Arsenal dominated the late minutes but failed to replicate United’s early ruthlessness.
The dream was dead and gone for long, and so is the season.
Arsene Wenger had sprung eight changes to Wednesday’s toilers but even with his eleven resembling a Carling Cup set-up, Portsmouth could hardly handle the class of the youth – justified by a splendid brace and first-time strike from Bendtner and Vela respectively.
That victory has turned cementing top-four spot into confirmation that Arsenal will not be pipped for Champions League berth next season. And it was exactly two months ago today that a similar walkover at West Brom initiated a rally over the once poised Aston Villa.
Wenger’s line-up was understrength today but the attacking menace proved full strength anyway.
Theo Walcott was at his services from the right wing – swiping an alerting low ball across the face of goal with Bendtner attempting to contact. Nadir Belhadj then surged through Arsenal’s back line to invite Fabianski, but he could only unleash a taming effort.
Carlos Vela was optimist from 20-yards out before Arsenal grasped firm gear on 13 minutes.
Arshavin pumped the ball back into Portsmouth’s area after his corner-kick was incompletely cleared. And Bendtner wrestled well to get a header which David James spluttered into his net.
Arsenal had been cruising early and Vela should have made it count more when Eboue pulled back a clean ball for him with space and time to finish. But the Mexican hesitated and his eventual effort went begging.
Portsmouth were only living off the pieces of Arsenal’s flair and relentless thrust until they finally faulted in attempt to contain Wenger’s men till half-time. Arshavin barged into the visitors’ territory and was tripped by Sean Davis. The victim of the infringement, Arshavin, looked more reluctant about the spot-kick’s rewarding than the referee himself, but Bendtner converted anyway.
The Gunners’ second might have been harsh on the home side, but even they could concede it had been coming. Portsmouth emerged rejuvenated for the second-half and should have pegged level perhaps.
An introduced Utaka smashed a decent effort off the face of the post, then Crouch squandered before Kanu nearly profited from 20-yards out. Chance after chance came and Portsmouth were missing from point-blank ranges.
It was inevitable that they paid for their profligacy.
Arsenal broke into attack again. Vela was biding his time in possession and shifted to hand over to Arshavin on the edge of the area. The Russian’s effort was blocked before Vela rebounded with a sweet low drive into the far bottom corner of the net.
Even with half-an-hour not ticked, there was nothing more to do than switch attentions to a larger-looming Champions League semi-final in midweek.
Likely contributors Walcott and Bendtner were given a breather as Amaury Bischoff benefited with a league debut before Merida was gifted a cameo.
After deputizing Fabregas effectively, Aaaron Ramsey was replaced by another creative mold in Mark Randall.
Arsenal did go for more on the score-sheet though – Vela forced a save from James and when Arshavin was thwarted in attempt later on, Noe Pamarot was issued his second-booking and sent off.
A clean-sheet flattered Arsenal but Fabianski did earn it well with Crouch and Distin all vying to cause stains late on.
The Gunners were dominant by a stretch.
By Randy Osae
Tonight’s succumbing drew similarities to their last visit to that so-called ‘theater of dreams’ – a 4-0 FA Cup mauling – but thanks to Almunia’s almost impervious heroics, the margin of defeat was much, much slenderer.
And for those persistent optimists who had entered Old Trafford fearing worse than John O’Shea’s lone strike, Wenger’s men could be much, much alive.
Former United centreback Mikael Silvestre and teenage leftback Kieran Gibbs both came through late fitness tests to boost the defensive unit, although the opening exchanges hardly inspired confidence in a back four missing both William Gallas and Gael Clichy.
Within two minutes, Darren Fletcher’s cross had given Wayne Rooney the chance to force Manuel Almunia into a fine one-handed save and it quickly became apparent that Arsenal would struggle to cope with the tempo of United’s opening salvoes.
A superb double save from Almunia denied Tevez just after quarter of an hour had elapsed but the resulting corner saw the holders claim the opener that their efforts deserved.
The initial delivery failed to trouble the Arsenal backline but, fatally, Michael Carrick was allowed to pick the ball up beyond the back post and hook it back across goal.
Theo Walcott’s attempt to intercept only served to direct the ball into the path of O’Shea and the Ireland defender finished with the aplomb of a seasoned striker, hitting a half-volley into the roof of the net.
Still reeling from that setback, Arsenal were fortunate not to concede a second when Cristiano Ronaldo headed an inviting cross from Tevez straight at Almunia.
But as the first half came to a close, the visitors began to string a few passes together although there were no clear chances to show for their attractive build-up and Almunia had to be quickly off his line to deny Ronaldo after a slipshod passback by Gibbs.
With United’s energy levels slipping, chances were thinner on the ground after the interval, but the hosts were still unfortunate not to double their lead with just over 20 minutes left after a piece of brilliance from Ronaldo.
Picking up a loose ball just inside the Gunners’ half, the Portuguese winger advanced to within 30 yards of the goal before unleashing a wickedly dipping drive that left Almunia completely stranded but clattered against the bar.
By that stage, Giggs had entered the fray and the frustration of the evening for United was summed up by the fact that only a fractional offside decision prevented the veteran Welsh winger from marking his landmark appearance with a goal.
Soon, it was over, and all Wenger’s men could say was; it could have been worse.
Of course, it can be a whole lot better next Tuesday.
By Randy Osae
Cesc Fabrgeas was the rare finisher of a pair of sublime moves from the Gunners which were only a fraction of the number of occasions Arsenal strolled through the visitors.
Arsene Wenger mastered Gareth Southgate for once, and he made sure he did with comfort.
The Emirates’ favorites were the pace-setters as usual and passes were stringing. Fabregas found Gibbs at the near post, but the youngster was shy to react.
Arshavin wanted five today and was active on the left. Within 26 minutes, he would compose the opener.
Before sprinting, the Russian handed a pass to Bendtner who flicked the ball to Fabregas on the center-line. The Spaniard swiftly teed up Arshavin who returned possession over for the skipper to drill the ball home from the edge of the area.
On another day, the struggling visitors may have had an appeal for penalty approved when Bendtner’s arm seemed to have met a corner-kick from Stewart Downing.
And despite being second best, Boro posed their second question for the home side when that same man alarmed Almunia with a 20-yard snap-shot.
Arsenal’s defense regrouped after Silvestre was swapped for a fit-again Djourou into the second-half. And Almunia had to rush out of his area to deny Jeremie Aliadiere from making the most of a slight indiscipline at the back.
Boro were slacking more at the other end as Fabregas and Eboue teamed to set up Walcott who forced action from Brad Jones.
Still at 1-0, Southgate’s men were still biding their time to nick something and when Marlon King volleyed on target, Arsenal lost their mercy.
And so on 67 minutes, Eboue sent in a ripping through-pass for Fabregas who rounded off the goalkeeper to coolly end the contest.
With nothing to debate about now, it was necessary Wenger saved his knacks for midweek and so Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Adebayor replaced Fabregas and Walcott respectively.
It was another walkover today.
By Randy Osae
A somehow deflated and suitably fourth-placed Arsenal managed to commemorate the occasion with a night to remember at Anfield through a virtuoso Arshavin.
The Russian’s quadruple of goals were matched by a resilient Liverpool, but it was a theatrical evening on Merseyside nonetheless.
Arsenal could not have found a more irrelevant fixture this season. Their tight fourth place security is unchanged and not much ground has been made up on third.
But they might have found a way to put Saturday’s distress well behind.
Chelsea had taken a lot out of Wenger’s men and as expected, Liverpool exploited the little they had left.
Torres, Riera, and Mascherano were all at the go before Fabregas chalked down Arsenal’s first try on 28 minutes.
Silvestre had to scramble the ball away after Torres nutmegged Toure to test Fabianski. Nasri then cleared off the mouth of his goal after Agger’s header proved dangerous.
Liverpool had been bossing until Arsenal hit them well against the run of play.
Nasri and Fabregas worked the ball on the right before the latter released a low pass for Arshavin to tap home with his weaker foot.
Arshavin then completed the first of his ‘finger on lips’ gestures to mark that goal as the infuriated Kop urged a response from the reds. And they got a swift one too.
Benayoun alerted Fabianski with half-time looming before his desperate side leveled right after the restart.
But Wenger could argue his men could have remained ahead for much longer. After all, a dully handled cross met by Torres to beat Fabianski was preventable. Arsenal could barely breath now as Liverpool sought the initiative to relieve their title ambitions.
And it only took a handful of minutes before a sandwich of Toure, Benayoun and Sagna bundled Kuyt’s cross past the goal line with Fabianski hesitant to concede with a false clearance.
Just like three days ago, Arsenal had fallen victims of a comeback having scored first, but with half an hour still to be played, Wenger opted to save the blushes tonight with Denilson sacrificed for a more audacious Walcott.
But it would be a Russian to do the trick. Arshavin stole the ball from 25 yards out and drilled in a stunner with Reina full-stretched. Indeed, he had saved his rampancy for tonight and netted a third after Carragher and Arbeloa were slacking right in no man’s land.
Arshavin had ran the show upfront and when he turned his back – to teammates in defense – Liverpool hit back.
It was typical Liverpool and trademark Torres. The Spaniard benefited from yet another cross, made light of Silvestre and thumped past Fabianski.
Then, it was up for grabs now – as an announcer 20 years back would reckon – with Torres seeing his goal-bound header negated by Gibbs before Andrey Arshavin stroke again.
This one was very Arsenal-esque though.
The Gunners broke off a tempting Liverpool corner with Walcott the road runner. And half-way near the reds’ territory, Walcott handed over to Arshavin who could hardly hesitate to whip a left-footed finish past Reina.
That seemed to have stilled the merry-go-round of events before Benayoun capped a fair night by punishing yet another diabolical moment in Arsenal’s defense from about 10 yards out.
The point impacts Arsenal’s season less and perhaps this one was just for the neutrals’ entertainment.
By Randy Osae
A very familiar story echoed as Arsenal bowed out of the FA Cup lingering off a vivid semi-final at Wembley.
A couple of factors might have dominated bets prior to this particular London affair; the early leaders end up losing and Drogba always has a say on derby day.
Indeed, matters did settle that way.
Today’s events would also resemble that of a Carling Cup final two years ago when the pair last confronted in cup competition.
Walcott’s dream start was subsided by Malouda’s response before the break and then Didier Drogba’s same old infliction which sprung with contribution from the dooms of Lukasz Fabianski’s 24th birthday.
Arsene Wenger’s side were Wembley debutantes. On the other hand, Chelsea were not. And so Arsenal’s nerves would be exposed.
Early on, Fabianski rushed off his territory to salvage a hanging ball. Drogba was lurking and the Ivorian headed over Arsenal’s stopper only for Gibbs to provide the real salvage – clearing before the ball reached home.
Both sides were still pretending to peal off cagey starts until Arsenal broke the deadlock on 18 minutes.
Adebayor fed Gibbs on the left and the 19-year-old whipped in a cross for Walcott who replied with a fortuitous volley – helped to beat Cech by a deflection off Ashley Cole.
Chelsea would respond to red-alarm immediately and Malouda nearly leveled with a winding low drive through Fabianski’s arms and across goal. He repeated that trick just after the hour mark – nutmeging Eboue before beating Fabianski by his near post.
Chelsea owned the upper-hand now.
For a semi-final of this altitude, it was better drawing level to head into the interval than to be pegged back. And when Anelka fizzled a shot onto the post, it was evident Arsenal were the more concerned during half-time.
Into the second-half, Adebayor was presented half a chance when Chelsea’s defence failed to safely deal with a cross, but the Togolese’s punishment was miserable.
Arsenal’s next notable attempt was when Walcott utilized a commanding match-up with Ashley Cole to whip in a searching cross which demanded a simple touch. But Diaby and then Van Persie could hardly meet it.
Chelsea were also having their moments.
Arsenal’s left area was bare and Ballack profited to send in a cross, but Anelka could have done better to haunt his old club with a header. From a similar move, Drogba teed up Lampard who volleyed narrowly wide off the side netting.
It was becoming a delicately poised London derby with both set of players looking leggy at this point. That’s when managers were raring to be tactical.
Hiddink and Wenger were looking for impact elsewhere.
And so for Chelsea, Kalou was introduced while Adebayor paved way for Bendtner after Arshavin had been sent on for Van Perise. Arsenal’s latest substitute had not even made a touch when Lampard floated a ball in. Silvestre and Toure were lingering as Fabianski was rushing.
Drogba was quickest to guide the ball though, and he rounded off Arsenal’s stopper to decide who would be finalists.
Arsene Wenger’s instant reaction was in the form of an off-bench Samir Nasri but nothing could be changed – Arsenal would surrender.
There had been road to Wembley but it did not prove vintage destination for the Gunners when they arrived – and so there will be no return in May.
But there may still be Rome routes to pursue.