Arsenal gifted third place by comical Fulop


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The Independent Online

On a day of farewells in the Black Country – with Roy Hodgson taking his final match as West Bromwich's head coach before assuming the England reins and Pat Rice serving as Arsène Wenger's No 2 for the last time – Arsenal might well have been waving goodbye to the Champions League proper until Laurent Koscielny exploited the third of three grave errors by goalkeeper Marton Fulop.

The 29-year-old Hungarian, deputising for Albion's injured player of the year Ben Foster, fluffed a routine punch, allowing the Frenchman to steer the ball into the net. Arsenal, who had seized an early lead through Yossi Benayoun before conceding twice in five minutes, to Shane Long and Graham Dorrans, equalised with a goal by Brazilian Andre Santos.

Unfortunately for Hodgson, whose next competitive assignment will be against France at Euro 2012, Fulop's performance, which could have served as a dictionary definition for "hapless", culminated in Koscielny's coup de grace. Even then it took a brilliant last-ditch challenge by substitute Kieran Gibbs to prevent Albion's Billy Jones getting his shot away in the final moments, a tackle Wenger hailed as "deserving huge credit". The Arsenal manager, relieved to have finished ahead of Tottenham in third place, spoke of his pride in having qualified for the Champions League for the 15th consecutive year.

"There are only three clubs in Europe who've done that, [the other two being Real Madrid and Manchester United]", he said. "In September [actually October] we were 17th after losing four of the first seven. It was very difficult to imagine we could finish third, but we had an exceptional run after our exit from the Champions League. They [the players] showed mental solidity and unity."

Asked whether the way Robin van Persie lingered in front of the celebrating Arsenal supporters after the match could signify another farewell, Wenger said: "You can make of that what you want", although he expects the 30-goal Dutchman , a peripheral figure in this contest, to remain at the Emirates.

Foster, who had suffered a groin strain in training after playing in all Albion's previous 37 matches on a season-long loan from Birmingham, reiterated after the match that Hodgson's appointment as England manager would not coax him out of international retirement.