Third place secured for 'frustrated' Arsenal
Arsenal 4 Fulham 0
Three first-half goals ensured Arsenal would secure the third and final automatic Champions League place long before Tottenham collapsed at Turf Moor, but an awareness of the impending coronation at Stamford Bridge meant joy was very much confined.
The murky skies were an appropriate backdrop. Arsenal fans are increasingly consumed by doubts as to whether their team will ever move beyond potential to achievement. Fulham, meanwhile, have had their euphoria at reaching Wednesday's Europa League final clouded by the return of volcanic ash. Another 17-hour bus journey to Hamburg looms, the club having travelled overland to the venue in the semi-final round.
Fulham are scheduled to travel tomorrow morning but an attempt is being made to get off the ground today if the forecast is for problems tomorrow. However, Roy Hodgson pointed out it was not "just a case of one person on a package holiday, it is a major operation involving 40 people and the aviation authorities". Hodgson appealed to Uefa not to "show their usual intransigence" but to postpone the game if the skies are closed. The one consolation is that Fulham's opponents, Atletico Madrid, could have even greater difficulties.
Hodgson also has injury concerns. Damien Duff, Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes should all be fit but Bobby Zamora is still unable to train and John Pantsil limped off with a sore groin yesterday.
Arsenal would love to be worrying about a final. Another season has ended without silverware, the fifth in succession. Arsène Wenger insisted his team had exceeded pre-season expectations but admitted he was still "frustrated" because "a month ago we were in touch with the championship and didn't win it". The Arsenal manager said: "We had a good attitude and showed strong character, we have improved in that area, but we conceded too many goals and there were too many injuries; we did not have the players available in the last six weeks to fight for the championship and Champions League.
"We were just a fraction short. We want to improve in quality but it is not necessarily a big number of players needed. I believe what Arsenal fans want from me is to bring in good players, last summer no one knew [Thomas] Vermaelen, now he is a big player."
The Belgian was one of five first-team players absent yesterday but Arsenal were still strong enough to swat aside a Fulham team chosen with Wednesday in mind. If Hodgson's selection was understandable, Spurs could have done without Fulham gifting Arsenal a brace of first-half goals. After 20 minutes, in which Mark Schwarzer's only real exertion was tipping over a dangerously flighted Robin van Persie free-kick, the Australian went to receive a back-pass from Chris Baird. A heavy first touch alerted Andrei Arshavin who seized upon the ball, rounded the goalkeeper twice, then drove in.
A dozen minutes later Theo Walcott crossed from the right, Emmanuel Eboué flicked on and Baird, under pressure from Van Persie and trying to clear with his right foot when he should have used his left, put into his own net. In between Arsenal had managed a goal without help. Bacary Sagna released Walcott who squared to Van Persie. Though Schwarzer turned the Dutchman's shot on to the bar Van Persie coolly dispatched the rebound.
Humiliation loomed for Fulham but they tightened up thereafter, conceding only once further, though Arsenal could have had several more. Seven minutes before the break Van Persie sent Walcott clear but the Englishman pulled his shot wide. Soon after the interval Schwarzer made a sharp double save from Van Persie. Midway though the second period Eboué rounded Baird in the box and was brought down. Referee Mike Jones, who had booked Clint Dempsey for diving minutes earlier, cautioned Eboué for the same offence. It was an error, but given Eboué's penchant for falsely going to ground it was perhaps just desserts.
Finally Carlos Vela, who must be one of those players vulnerable to be shown the door this summer, ran on to Samir Nasri's pass and chipped Schwarzer. It was reminiscent of Lionel Messi's third goal against Manuel Almunia in the Nou Camp a few weeks ago, but Vela has yet to show he can finish like that when the pressure is on.
The same applies to several team-mates, including Lukas Fabianski, the goalkeeper who received ironic cheers when he caught crosses. "There is a massive talent there," said Wenger. The same applies to the rest of the team, but when will it be realised?
Arsenal (4-1-2-3): Fabianski; Sagna, Campbell, Silvestre (Djourou, 61), Clichy; Diaby; Eboue, Nasri; Walcott (Lansbury, 77), Van Persie, Arshavin (Vela, 77). Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Gibbs, Merida, Eastmond.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Pantsil (Kelly, 58), Smalling, Shorey; Riise (Elm, h/t), Dikgacoi, Greening, Dempsey (Stoor, 66); Nevland, Okaka. Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Gera, Murphy, Davies.
Referee: M Jones (Chester).
Booked: Arsenal Eboué, Fabianski; Fulham Dempsey, Kelly.
Man of the match: Van Persie