Arsenal 2 West Ham United 3: Campbell's exit signals growing Arsenal crisis

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The Independent Online

Sol Campbell did not hang around to watch the end of Arsenal's third straight defeat, but for the home support at Highbury there was something mesmerising about the astonishing decline of their team and this defeat in particular. The veteran England defender stalked out of the stadium after his humiliating half-time substitution: the truth is that his horrendous performance deserved nothing less.

The misfortunes of Arsène Wenger's side have never failed to be spectacular and, with one of their most reliable old servants providing the half-time histrionics this occasion was no exception. But Arsenal are in the grip of a much more daunting malaise: in their last three games Everton and now West Ham in the Premiership and Bolton in the FA Cup have defeated them - not to mention Carling Cup elimination from Wigan. And yet at times last night they played sublimely and, despite their faults, came so close to saving the draw.

Just minutes after West Ham's Matthew Etherington had plundered the third goal, Thierry Henry went close with a breathtaking overhead kick - in those few moments were encapsulated Arsenal's perplexing, unreliable character. The credit for exploiting it must go to Alan Pardew's courageous young West Ham team who had few chances but took what came their way to record the club's first win at Highbury in 11 years.

They celebrated the 2,000th game at Highbury last night, a small ceremony with a banner that marked another milestone as Arsenal's 93 years at the old stadium winds down to the end in May. It felt last night, however, as though another significant aspect of English football had passed into history as well and, like the ground, it recedes into the past with some attendant sadness. It was Campbell's England career.

A pity for him that Sven Goran Eriksson, and his girlfriend Nancy Dell'Olio wrapped up against the February cold, were there to see it because it was an undignified exit for a proud English footballer who has been so exemplary for so long.

Not last night. He was outpaced and out-thought for Nigel Reo-Coker's first goal, and when Bobby Zamora slammed into him on 32 minutes on his way to the second he was simply out-muscled.

If you wanted to see an international defender of the future last night then the West Ham man in the No 5 shirt looked a much better bet but, realistically, Anton Ferdinand will have known that, for the time being, he and his eager young team-mates were doing brother Rio a favour. Ferdinand Snr's rival for the England central defensive place alongside John Terry was subjected to a most excruciating examination of his fading powers.

Not just Campbell but for periods of the first half, Arsenal were reminded by their neighbours from the east what it is to be a hungry, ambitious team of young blades. Robin van Persie was Arsenal's greatest threat in the first half and he struck the post after seven minutes after turning Danny Gabbidon once, then once more, in the West Ham area. When the chances came, however, it was the away side who took them.

First Reo-Coker, who should never have been allowed to reach Hayden Mullins' through-ball before Campbell, seized upon the mistake of the defender and kept his cool during the sprint towards the North Bank to slip the ball under Jens Lehmann on 25 minutes.

Zamora found himself shoulder to shoulder with Campbell on 32 minutes and effortlessly shrugged the defender to the ground before doubling back and picking his spot.

With Kerrea Gilbert injured in a challenge with Zamora, Mathieu Flamini became the second makeshift full-back in the Arsenal team. They had no choice but to attack and Yossi Benayoun cleared Johan Djourou's shot off the line with three minutes to spare.

Moments later, West Ham were not so fortunate. Konchesky's mistake allowed Arsenal in and when Van Persie's shot was cleared off the line by Ferdinand it was struck home by Robert Pires via Henry.

Arsenal's greatest-ever goalscorer would no doubt have preferred a happier occasion, and more spectacular circumstances, to score his 151st league goal for the club, surpassing Cliff Bastin's record.

Indignity heaped upon indignity for Campbell who was replaced in the back four at half-time by Sebastian Larsson, an academy graduate who promptly got himself booked.

Out of sight in the Arsenal dressing room, Campbell was understood to have made an angry and unplanned exit. After a shouted exchange with Wenger he changed, showered and was out past the commissionaire on the door of the marble halls and into the night.

The prospect of one of the most placid souls in English football losing his cool with Wenger did as much to suggest a crisis at the heart of Arsenal than anything that had preceded it on the pitch. Etherington scored the third on 80 minutes when Reo-Coker seized on Larsson's mistake to cross.

With one minute of time remaining the ball dropped to Pires after Shaka Hislop's save from Dennis Bergkamp and he drilled in the second for Arsenal. It was a nervous wait for the final whistle for West Ham and when it came, Henry took his exit as quickly as possible.

Arsenal (4-4-2) : Lehmann; Gilbert (Flamini, 27), Campbell (Larsson, h-t), Djourou, Senderos; Ljungberg, Diaby (Bergkamp, 71), Gilberto, Pires; Van Persie, Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Hleb.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop; Clarke (Fletcher, 75), Gabbidon, Ferdinand, Konchesky; Benayoun (Newton, 65), Reo-Coker, Mullins, Etherington; Zamora (Ashton, 73), Harewood. Substitutes not used: Bywater (gk), Sheringham.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

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