“Tottenham Hotspur, we’re coming for you.” That was the chant from the Arsenal supporters at the final whistle yesterday and who could blame them their bullishness?
At the same ground where they secured third place on the final day of last season, Arsenal moved a point above Chelsea into fourth position and within one of third-placed Spurs, putting the pressure firmly on their London rivals who are both in action this afternoon.
It was a victory with an unlikely hero in Tomas Rosicky who, on only his second League start of another injury-hit campaign, struck a goal in each half. His last League goal had come 14 months ago, in last February’s north London derby, and his double yesterday felt equally significant, securing “three big points”, as his manager, Arsène Wenger, put it.
On the evidence of the first hour it was a thoroughly merited victory too, although the visitors had to withstand a late Albion rally after Per Mertesacker’s red card for fouling Shane Long and James Morrison’s ensuing penalty put Arsenal on the back foot. Withstand it they did, though, to move a step closer to a 16th consecutive season of Champions’ League football, and leave Wenger understandably satisfied.
“We have showed two aspects of our game today – one [our] control and technical quality, and one that was less known: fighting spirit, resolute attitude and battling qualities,” he said. “That reflects well the spirit we have in our side.”
The Arsenal manager had particular praise for Rosicky. “He is an important player for us, unfortunately he was injured for a long time but every year he gives us a little push at the end of the season,” added Wenger, who expressed the wish that the 32-year-old, entering the last year of his contract, “finishes his career with us”.
Even before scoring, Rosicky had made a telling contribution by heading Claudio Yacob’s near-post header off the line to deny Albion an early goal. And if the Czech had looked pretty rusty when slicing an early half-chance badly wide, he made amends with the breakthrough goal, finishing off a move he had helped initiate in the middle of the pitch. After Mikel Arteta moved the ball on with a long diagonal pass to Gervinho down the left, the Ivorian, his confidence newly restored, twisted Gareth McAuley inside and out before crossing into the six-yard box where Rosicky struck with a stooping header.
Arsenal tails were up, and a comfortable victory seemed inevitable when Rosicky doubled Arsenal’s lead after 50 minutes. He met Ramsey’s infield pass with a powerful half-volley from the edge of the box and although Foster was equal to it, the Czech was quick to the rebound, drilling the ball into the bottom corner.
The Baggies leading scorer, Romelu Lukaku, made a real nuisance of himself after coming on in the 62nd minute, begging the question of why he was not on the pitch from the start. One possible answer might have been the fact that his father was sentenced to 15 months in a Belgian prison this week for assaulting an ex-girlfriend, but manager Steve Clarke stressed it was “tactical”.
As it was, Albion got their lifeline when Mertesacker took out Long, though Morrison’s spot-kick had a touch of fortune, striking Lukasz Fabianski’s foot on its way in. Arsenal were also lucky when McAuley and Long spurned clear chances.
Arsenal have now won six of their last seven League fixtures – a sequence echoing their run of seven wins in eight this time last year – and, with Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott due back next weekend, Wenger sees no reason why they cannot keep it going and claim that Champions’ League place. “I believe we will do it,” he said. “It will demand 100% commitment in every game and will be difficult and edgy until the end. The only thing I can say is we are ready for the fight.”
WBA (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Yacob, Brunt; Dorrans (Lukaku, 62), Morrison, Thomas (Rosenberg, 62); Long.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Fabianski; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Arteta, Ramsey; Gervinho (Vermaelen, 73), Rosicky (Gibbs, 81), Cazorla (Coquelin, 89); Giroud.
Referee: Howard Webb.
Man of the match: Rosicky (Arsenal)
Match rating: 7/10