“I have confidence but I also worry,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said, and it was not hard to see why after a victory that restored his team’s momentum in the Premier League title race. Arsenal hovered on the edge of another disappointment yesterday before coming back to win for the first time in five games.
Theo Walcott scored twice, the second created by Lukas Podolski, who sealed his comeback from four months on the sidelines with a hamstring injury by scoring the third.
But although Arsenal dominated the game and deserved the points, they had trailed to Carlton Cole’s goal in the first minute of the second half, could have gone further behind, and needed a helping hand from Adrian, the West Ham goalkeeper, who blundered badly to allow Walcott’s opener.
“Overall, I feel we controlled the game but felt we had a difficult period where the game could have changed,” Wenger said. “The positive is we created chances. The negative is we didn’t take them. Sometimes there is a guilt flying around the team when you don’t take your chances. You think, basically, we deserve to be punished and we were. But we responded very well in the second half, in the end winning the game in a convincing way.”
Despite a battling performance, West Ham have only one win in 11 league games and dropped into the bottom three.
“We’ve let it slip through our fingers,” West Ham manager Sam Allardyce said. “We had three golden chances after we scored – a great opportunity to beat a top-of-the-league team and we didn’t take it. We have to perform like that against clubs that give you a better chance to win the game. West Brom [at Upton Park tomorrow] is becoming a must-win game.”
After a brief opening flurry from West Ham, the story of the first half was of Arsenal attacks, with Olivier Giroud repeatedly failing to get on the end of a series of crosses from Mezut Özil, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna. And when the Frenchman was played through, he dragged the ball well wide with only Adrian to beat.
Adrian did well to claw a header by the recalled Santi Cazorla away from the top corner, and was relieved to see volleys by Walcott and Mikel Arteta go wide.
Wojciech Szczesny had only been threatened by a swerving free kick from Mark Noble and a long-range shot by Mohamed Diamé before everything changed in the 46th minute. Arteta’s mis-hit clearance fell perfectly for Kevin Nolan, whose 20-yarder Szczesny could not hold. The ball ran loose to Cole, who could not miss.
Would Arsenal’s heads drop at the unfairness of it all? For a while it seemed so. Szczesny had to block Matt Jarvis’s shot on the turn, and Joey O’Brien, unmarked, glanced a header wide. And Cole should have done better than the half-hearted prod he produced when the ball whistled across goal from the left.
But Arsenal forced West Ham back. Adrian parried from Cazorla, then somehow got in the way of Özil’s follow-up effort, and after 68 minutes the pressure told – although it was a seasonal gift from Adrian, who, possibly un-sighted, allowed Walcott’s left-foot shot to slither between his hands.
It was the fourth successive game against West Ham in which the England winger has scored and another was only three minutes away. Podolski’s cross from the left glanced off the top of James Tomkins’ head and Walcott nodded in.
After 79 minutes, Walcott crossed from the right, Giroud touched the ball back and Podolski cracked a shot past Adrian from 18 yards. Comeback complete, for Podolski and Arsenal.
“He has been out for four months, he has not played one game,” Wenger said. “I try to get him slowly back to competitiveness and he has shown that he can have a huge impact because he can score and make you score goals, give assists.”
The negative for Wenger was an injury that forced Aaron Ramsey off in the second half.
“It looks like a thigh strain. I don’t know how serious, but the Christmas period is certainly over for him. It was his birthday today.”