Arsenal looked disaster in the eye tonight, and, for the second time in four days, decided to postpone their engagement for a little longer. This was a game that Arsenal could not afford to lose and yet West Ham United took the lead late on in the first half.
Defeat here would have been untenable, just as it would have been on Saturday at Wembley, and Arsenal's senior players seemed to sense this. The team, at first, were stalled in first gear, as they have been for weeks, but two goals from Lukas Podolski and one piece of brilliance from Olivier Giroud dragged them over the line and back into fourth place.
Arsenal might well be past the point of playing well again this season. They have just four league games left now, and then the cup final, and are quite clearly operating with in what Arsene Wenger himself would call 'the red zone', down to their very last reserves of players, energy and ideas. Tonight they had both specialist left-backs injured, as well as Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott. Mathieu Flamini, the only genuine holding player, was suspended.
So it was a rather unusual Arsenal team that Arsene Wenger sent out. There have not been many recent games between these two sides which West Ham began with more youth and pace than Arsenal, but so it was here at the Emirates. With Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain worn out by their efforts at Wembley on Saturday, Arsenal's youngest outfield player was Olivier Giroud, 27 years old and not exactly spritely in the recent months.
In pictures: Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
In pictures: Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
1/6 Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
Players, fans and officials observe a minute's silence to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster prior to kick-off
2/6 Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
Matt Jarvis gives West Ham the lead
3/6 Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
Lukas Podolski equalises with a precise, powerful finish
4/6 Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
Oliver Giroud puts Arsenal ahead with his weaker right foot after showing sublime touch to get the ball under control
5/6 Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
Oliver Giroud kisses the Arsenal badge after giving the Gunners the lead
6/6 Arsenal 3 West Ham 1
Lukas Podolski hammers in Arsenal's third to put the game to bed
“It was an unusual around-30 team, and that experience of course helps when you are a little bit back against the wall,” Wenger said afterwards. “It was the oldest team I have ever played at Arsenal since I've been here.” Some sums made this just the oldest Arsenal line-up since 2003, but still certainly a departure from the norm here.
Arsenal paid a price of sorts for this selection, playing the first half-hour with precious little spark or wit. Matt Jarvis was the fastest, sharpest, most dynamic player on the pitch. He might have won a penalty, choosing to stay on his feet after being tripped by Bacary Sagna, producing two dangerous crosses from the left before eventually nodding West Ham into the lead, reacting first after Wojciech Szczesny had blocked a low shot from Antonio Nocerino.
This was the moment when, just as at Wembley when Jordi Gomez scored his second-half penalty, the price of defeat became clear to Arsenal. They had been desperately blunt before going behind; Olivier Giroud wasting the best chance, stabbing tamely with the outside of his left boot at a ball that was waiting to be struck firmly beyond Adrian.
Scoring before half-time was important, and Arsenal did it. It was Santi Cazorla, who produced exactly what was required of him, who made the goal with a beautifully disguised pass through space to Podolski, just inside the box. Podolski controlled the ball, span and fired it into the opposite bottom corner.
If that goal came out of nowhere the second was even more surprising. . Arsenal had been sustaining some rather blunt pressure and Mohamed Diame hacked a corner away upfield. Vermaelen took possession in the centre circle and chipped a diagonal ball towards Giroud at the far post. Wriggling free of Winston Reid, Giroud controlled the ball with remarkable poise, cushioning it down while holding off Andy Carroll as well before slotting the ball left footed between Adrian's legs and in.
It was a piece of brilliance - Wenger called it “a perfect first touch” - but what was even more important was the character it showed. “At half time Olivier came in, he was very, very down because he missed a great chance in the first half,” Wenger revealed. “But he responded very well in the second, because he is a mentally strong guy.”
That is the character that Arsenal need now, as they attempt to claw back fourth from Everton despite being in less good form. Wenger said that they were “tested mentally”, and while they have failed too many of those tests recently, they passed this one. “We were strong, united, disciplined and determined. You could feel that the team was absolutely focused from the first to the last minute.”
With 12 minutes remaining, Sam Allardyce was just about to throw on Joe Cole and Ricardo Vaz Te before an Arsenal substitute - Aaron Ramsey, introduced six minutes before - helped to win the game. Ramsey has to be carefully managed after playing nearly two hours on Saturday, his first start since Christmas, but he looked sharp in this brief cameo. Lurking on the edge of the box, Ramsey received Giroud's cut-back from the left, angled his body and played a through-pass with his head to Podolski, who finished powerfully into the roof of the net.
This felt like a riposte of sorts from Podolski, who complained on Saturday evening about his lack of playing time, but there has never been much doubt about his ability when the ball falls onto his left boot with a clear sight of goal. “He's a fantastic finisher because he has unbelievable power, he has a very short backlift,” Wenger said afterwards. “The one you want to have a chance is him.”
That was more or less that, a game which Arsenal had started poorly turning into a comfortable win thanks to a few very important contributions. Arsenal will be hoping Everton slip up against Crystal Palace tonight, but even if they do not, a tight race is still on.
“We have one advantage,” Wenger said. “The picture is very clear in front of us. We have to win. We want to do it of course. It's a good chance that if we win all our games it's possible”
Man of the match Cazorla.
Match rating 4/10.
Referee K Friend (Leicestershire).
Attendance 59,777.Reuse content