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Song nails Hammers to overcome woodwork failures

Arsenal 1 West Ham 0

Song 88

Arsenal were forced to dig deep, but their perseverance ensured West Ham remain rooted to the foot of the Premier League table after an Alex Song header two minutes from time condemned them to defeat, despite the best efforts of both Robert Green and the goal-frame to deny the home side.

Having made nine changes for the Carling Cup victory at Newcastle in midweek, Arsène Wenger reverted to a more customary line-up, with Laurent Koscielny the only change to the team that won 3-0 at Manchester City last Sunday.

After an opening 20 minutes lacking in clear-cut chances, Green made his first meaningful save of the afternoon, and arguably his best, at the end of an incisive move by the home side. A deft pass by Song sent Bacary Sagna clear, and the full back immediately squared the ball for Cesc Fàbregas as he arrived in the area. The captain’s first-time effort from 12 yards out was struck well, but Green flung himself across his goal to pluck the ball out of the air. Before half-time, Green would intervene decisively again, first denying Song’s low shot, then tipping a header by Sébastien Squillaci over the bar.

West Ham themselves had played with a degree of ambition, with Scott Parker and Mark Noble putting themselves about effectively in midfield, although the former was lucky to escape a booking after several robust challenges. Denilson, playing his third game in seven days, was on the end of a number of sturdy tackles and struggled at times, particularly with his passing. Nonetheless Lukasz Fabiański had little to do in the first period other than to watchfully hold on to a well-struck Noble effort which flew straight at him.

With Arsenal occasionally sloppy and too often lacking the killer final ball, it had been a much more even first half than many at the Emirates had been expecting.

The woodwork denied Nasri what would have been his eighth goal of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After half-time, however, the visitors gradually retreated deeper into their own half as Arsenal began to turn up the pressure. Samir Nasri hit the bar with a rasping free kick from fully 35 yards. Theo Walcott came on for Denilson midway through the half, and his pace immediately troubled West Ham’s tiring back line. Within five minutes of his arrival, the England winger beat Green with an angled shot, but the ball rebounded off the inside of the far post and straight back into the keeper’s grateful arms.

Arsenal continued to surge forward with increasing urgency. Andrey Arshavin, after another lacklustre performance, gave way to Nicklas Bendtner. Inside the final ten minutes, several other chances went begging as Green stood firm and it started to look like the Hammers, despite the flurry of shots raining down on their goal, might just hold on against the odds for a battling draw.

Song has scored in each of his last three games (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With only a couple of minutes remaining, though, the breakthrough finally arrived. Arsenal worked the ball patiently across the face of the West Ham box. Song switched the point of attack with a sumptuous cross-field ball to Gaël Clichy. The left back cut inside and delivered a delightful right-footed cross into the six-yard box – a real collector’s island from a player whose crossing so often disappoints. Bendtner just failed to connect with an outstretched leg but Song, arriving behind him, diverted the ball past Green with a full-length diving header. It was the Cameroon international’s third goal in as many games, and Clichy’s first assist at the Emirates in nearly three years – his previous one also being against West Ham in early 2008.

West Ham threw caution to the wind in what little time remained, but the home side’s defence stood firm. Looking at the game as a whole, West Ham can have little to complain about the fact of their defeat, but the manner and timing with which it came will have disappointed them although, with Wolves’ surprising win over Manchester City, a draw would have still left them bottom.

After the game, Wenger admitted his concern as the clock ticked down, but praised his side’s patience:

We needed to be patient, intelligent and not make a mistake at the back against a West Ham team who had a strong spirit and were well-organised. We showed patience because in the first half it was difficult to get into the flow of our passing so we had to wait until they got a bit fatigued. West Ham kept going and we did as well. We kept the structure of our game right, we didn’t do anything stupid, we kept trying to be intelligent and that in the end got us the goal with two minutes to go.

He also praised his goalscorer, who has shown greater all-round aspects to his game this season, joking that his increasing presence in the opposition penalty area was getting to be a bit much even for his attacking philosophy:

He is [adding a new dimension to his game] because when you sum up his game today he had three good chances: the goal he scored, the one on his right boot and the header in the first half that touched the bar. He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder! But that is part of our game as well.

And when asked about his team’s chances of breaking their five-year trophy drought, he remained cautiously optimistic but stressed the need for consistency:

I believe we have a good chance, yes, but we want to show consistency first. We go step by step. I believe we still need to step up a gear to completely achieve that. But on the other hand you feel as well that there is more to come out from this team because we had a good potential on the bench today and we still have some players to come back. So if we can keep a good injury record then we have a chance. It’s too early in the season [to be sure] but I have belief. We have to show we can handle every single game with the different aspects that the Premier League has. You saw today that we played against the bottom team in the Premier League and it was a real battle. We have to show we can compete like that in every game.

In the meantime, Wenger’s side is developing a winning habit. They have now won five games in a row in the space of two weeks, scoring 15 goals while rarely hitting top gear, and today represented their third consecutive clean sheet. Song’s late winner was also the tenth time in 15 games in all competitions that Arsenal have scored in the last ten minutes. On a couple of occasions this season the team has underperformed, but it is difficult to argue against the character of a side with the tenacity and self-belief to score late goals with such regularity. There are many tougher challenges to come, but it certainly bodes well.

Arsenal now travel to Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday knowing that a win will all but mathematically confirm them as winners of Group H with two games to spare.

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