No record, but Van Persie has nothing to fear by the return of Henry
Arsenal 1 Queens Park Rangers 0
Sunday 01 January 2012
For all of Thierry Henry's adulation, he returns to Robin van Persie's Arsenal FC. This game was the perfect encapsulation of, and the perfect end to, Arsenal's 2011. Van Persie, their captain, was their best player, their inspiration and their goal-scorer in a victory which left Arsenal ending the year in fourth.
After the long trauma which began with the Carling Cup final defeat in February and bottomed out with the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford in August, it is a remarkable triumph for Arsenal to end the year two points ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool.
But there they are, and it would have been inconceivable without their captain. Van Persie scored his 35th goal of the calendar year yesterday, leaving him just one short of Alan Shearer's Premier League record.
Arsène Wenger admitted afterwards that Van Persie will "certainly" be kicking himself: he had the chances to go beyond 36 in a well-contested game.
He will have to content himself with rather double-edged praise from the defeated manager, Neil Warnock. "What can you say about somebody like that?" he asked. "He does get away with murder, every long ball that comes down he gets his arm up, he fouls the centre-half, but he does it in a way that they don't give it, so it's obviously within the laws of the game."
On the downside, however, Wenger will have to face up to three weeks without his talismanic but injury-ravaged central defender Thomas Vermaelen, who has sustained a calf strain. He already has four defenders side-lined.
Wenger had made three attacking changes after the 1-1 draw with Wolves. Tomas Rosicky, Yossi Benayoun and Gervinho were replaced by Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and, rather surprisingly, the out-of-sorts and increasingly unpopular Andrey Arshavin.
Arsenal played as if they were expecting Henry to come off the bench and save them the effort of winning the game. When Arshavin was elbowed in the face by Adel Taarabt it prompted outrage from none of the 60,067 supporters, nor from his team-mates.
But Henry was not on the bench, so it was Van Persie who had to make the difference, as it was throughout 2011. After a quarter of an hour he teased Matthew Connolly, found space, but could only stab at Radek Cerny.
Seven minutes later his far-post run was met by Ramsey's cross. Falling away from the goal, Van Persie still managed to head the ball, but missed the opposite corner by inches. Two minutes later he took Johan Djourou's pass, beat Luke Young but shot too high.
More impressive was yet to come: after half an hour he ran on to Vermaelen's long pass but volleyed over with his right foot.
In the second half, Rangers played with more ambition, pushing more bodies forward. This created space for Arsenal to attack, and 11 minutes in they made their best chance yet. Ramsey played through Walcott, who burst between the centre-backs. Despite the comforts of time and space, however, he skewed his shot wide.
Four minutes later, Shaun Wright-Phillips played a blind pass into the space he presumed Young was occupying. Arshavin was the recipient and with his most useful touch of the afternoon he played in Van Persie. Choosing the same corner Walcott aspired towards, Van Persie slid home his 35th League goal of the year. Warnock called it a "terrible goal".
With Rangers obliged to attack, and Arsenal already predisposed to doing so, the final half-hour was enjoyably open. Taarabt could not be silenced, and while his dive in the area was risible, Laurent Koscielny was forced into more blocks and tackles than they might have expected.
This was Van Persie's day, though, and his year, and he remained the most influential player. His dance through the inside-left channel set up Gervinho, on as a substitute, but his shot hit the post.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen (Coquelin, 54); Song, Arteta; Walcott (Gervinho, 74), Ramsey, Arshavin (Rosicky, 68); Van Persie.
QPR (4-2-3-1): Cerny; Young, Gabbidon, Connolly, Traoré (Orr, 78); Faurlin, Barton; Mackie (Smith 74), Wright-Phillips, Taarabt; Bothroyd (Campbell, 65).
Referee Martin Atkinson.
Man of the match Van Persie (Arsenal).
Match rating 6/10.
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